SCPRT secretive about renters at Governor’s Mansion complex
By Rick Brundrett
Since Henry McMaster became governor in 2017, the state’s tourism agency has received more than $675,000 from renting the historic Lace House at the Governor’s Mansion complex in downtown Columbia, records show.
But the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) – whose director, Duane Parrish, is a member of McMaster’s Cabinet – won’t reveal who has rented the public building, contending it would be an “unreasonable invasion of privacy” under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The Nerve recently requested, under the open-records law, a breakdown of rental income, the purpose of the each event, and the identities and mailing addresses of the renters since Jan. 1, 2017. SCPRT released six pages of records, blacking out the names and addresses of all of the renters.
Most of the listed 225 events, scheduled from Jan. 14, 2017, through today, were weddings, though the gatherings also included five unspecified fundraisers, a “board retreat,” another “retreat,” and four other events labeled only as “meeting,”
“meeting/social,” “social” and “winter social.”
The only identified organizations connected to functions at the Lace House were “SC Home Builders,” the “Heritage Garden Club” and the “Black Expo,” records show.
The Governor’s Mansion complex is located on nine acres off Richland Street in Columbia’s Arsenal Hill neighborhood. The Governor’s Mansion has long been the official residence of the governor.
Contacted by The Nerve, longtime state government watchdog John Crangle said SCPRT should release the Lace House renters’ identities.
“So long as it’s public property and the money is going to the state,” said Crangle, government relations director for the South Carolina Progressive Network, “(the public) ought to know who’s paying this money to the state and what they’re getting in return for it.”
“Otherwise,” he added, “it’s subject to a lot of abuse.”
In an email responses to The Nerve, Emily Johnson, SCPRT’s general counsel, said the agency will “maintain the confidentiality of the personal information unless it is overwhelmingly in the public interest not to do so,” noting that the “public interest in knowing who rented a facility, where they live, and how much it costs is outweighed by privacy rights which belong to the individual, not the Agency.”
But Crangle, an attorney, said Lace House guests don’t have an “expectation of privacy” because the events are held on public property.
“You have to walk on publicly owned sidewalks and grounds to get there,” he said. “If you want to have a wedding ceremony on the steps of the State House, would you have an expectation of privacy? I don’t think so.”
Asked about Lace House guests having potential access to McMaster, Johnson replied: “Like state parks, access to the Lace House or other facilities on the Governor’s Mansion Complex does not equate to the Governor’s mansion or the Governor. The Governor is a public servant equally available regardless of the rental of public facilities.”
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes did not respond to written questions from The Nerve about whether the governor has attended any Lace House events since becoming governor in January 2017, or his position on the rental of mansion complex facilities.
In its written budget proposal for fiscal 2021, which starts next July 1, SCPRT said given the agency’s “success in marketing and operating the Lace House as an event rental venue over the past three years, the Agency believes that there is significant potential to expand this successful operation to include other facilities on the north side of the Governor’s Mansion Complex, including the Caldwell-Boylston House, the Carriage House, and the Gardens, hereafter known as the Venues at Arsenal Hill.”
SCPRT records provided to The Nerve show that the agency received a total of $679,774.50 in rental income from Lace House events over the three-year period: $166,045 for 65 events in 2017, $234,237 for 76 events in 2018, and $279,492.50 for 84 events this year.
Event rental costs ranged from $625 for a baby shower in 2017 to $5,800 each for two weddings in 2018. Full-day rental rates during the “peak” seasons of March through May and September through November range from $1,800 on Mondays through Thursdays to $4,100 on Saturdays, with lower rates for half-day events, according to the Lace House’s government website.
Other “venues” at the Governor’s Mansion complex can be added to the Lace House rental for fees ranging from $800 for the “Wedding Garden” to $1,100 for the “Memorial Garden,” according to the website.
A video posted on the Lace House Facebook page begins by saying, “The Lace House boasts an exclusive location at the Governor’s Mansion complex,” and contends the site offers “an ideal setting for photography sessions and film shoots.” The building and side terrace can accommodate up to 300 guests, while the “Memorial Garden” and “Mansion Mall” at the complex can seat up to 400 and 600-plus guests, respectively, the video says.
Although SCPRT wouldn’t release the identities of Lace House renters to The Nerve, the Facebook page includes public recommendations from those who were married at the location or used it for other types of events.
Originally constructed in 1855, the Lace House was acquired by the state in 1968 and became the “official guest house of the Governor’s Mansion, accommodating overnight guests of the Governor and providing extra space for official functions of the Governor and his administration,” according to the Lace House website.
In 2001, the Lace House was “reopened for use by the public for weddings, parties, lectures and other revenue generating functions” in “keeping with the administration’s belief in maximizing the value of state assets,” according to the website.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.