Larry Holman

Larry Holman

BEAUFORT, S.C. (AP) _ The leader of the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday that people should “avoid any premature judgments” on what caused a fire that destroyed the organization’s new headquarters.

Chamber CEO and president Larry Holman said the investigation could take a week.

“I’m asking the community to please avoid any premature judgments or assumptions about the cause of the fire and allow federal investigators to complete their work,” he said at a news conference outside the burned building.

Construction of the three-story structure was nearly complete when it burned early Saturday, causing at least $2 million in damages. There were no reported injuries.

A grand opening was planned for Jan. 12.

Federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took over the investigation Sunday.

The chamber has been the target of vandals before. Someone spray painted “Racist” in red letters on its sign in July 2015 _ the same month the Confederate flag was removed after 15 years in front of the South Carolina Statehouse.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling echoed Holman’s request.

“Given the mood of the country, and the earlier `racist’ graffiti posted on the pre-construction sign at the site, it would be easy to jump to conclusions. But I beg you please do not do so,” Keyserling said in an emailed statement. “That is not the Beaufort we love. Let’s first get the facts.”

Holman called the fire a devastating setback to a “dream” project that’s been in the works for four years. How long of a setback remains unclear. Regardless, Holman said, the chamber will “forge ahead with our plans to bring a positive economic impact to Beaufort and the surrounding areas.”

The building was to include space for banquets or weddings and a commercial kitchen, to be used by caterers and for culinary training. Possibilities for retail space on the bottom floor included a restaurant and a museum where people could sell their art, Holman said.

Four businesses that could help small start-ups and entrepreneurs be successful had committed to occupying space in the building, he said.

Addressing questions about the organization’s need, he said it’s not a traditional chamber of commerce.

Its mission, he said, is to assist small businesses that meet the federal definition of being a “disadvantaged business enterprise.” That term refers to businesses majority-owned and controlled by people considered socially and economically disadvantaged, including African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and Native Americans.

 

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