Economic Development group gives county's land to towns

The Barnwell Economic Development Corporation handed over property it managed to three towns in the county and one private company.

Four property deeds filed with the Barnwell County Clerk of Court's office show the corporation, part of the Barnwell Economic Development Commission, "donated" land it managed in Blackville, Barnwell city and Williston to the respective municipalities.

Land located near the Barnwell County Airport was given to the South Carolina Tissue company, a private company that was suppose to build a plant - but never did - on the property.

The documents are signed by Vernon "Pete" Grady, the corporation's president and chairman of the EDC. The documents were signed Friday, Dec. 13, and filed with the clerk of court Monday, Dec. 16.

Councils for the three municipalities each held special-called meetings Wednesday night so council members could be informed of the situation. Each council went into closed session to hear legal advice from their attorney, and none of the councils took any action following the closed sessions.

Barnwell County Council, which established and oversees the EDC, has a special-called meeting scheduled for Friday, Dec. 20, at 9 a.m. in council chambers. The agenda says council will go into closed session to discuss litigation regarding the donated properties.

It seems Grady gave no indication to county council about his plans. Council Chairman Freddie Houston said he did not know what was going on when asked about the situation Tuesday.

Now, the question to be answered is: Does the EDC have the legal power to give away land owned by the county?

Houston, and county attorney J.D. Mosteller, have said the county's ordinance for the EDC states council must vote to give away land managed by the EDC.

The whole episode stems from the EDC's lack of a working relationship with the SouthernCarolina Alliance, an organization advocating for regional growth among Barnwell and five other counties. Exactly who is to blame for the gap between the two organizations is unclear, but things came to a head when members of county council began pushing for SCA to have more control over Barnwell County's economic future.

On Tuesday, Houston said county council had been contemplating a new economic plan whereby the county would give control of EDC managed property to SCA and let EDC Executive Director Marty Martin continue to manage the land -- but under the authority of the Alliance.

Original Story

Just before press time Tuesday, Barnwell City Council along with Blackville and Williston town councils each announced they will hold a special-called meeting Wednesday, Dec. 18.

Each council's agenda for the meeting was sent out Tuesday, Dec. 17, and states council will go into closed session to hear legal advice on "donated property." Williston and Blackville councils will meet at 5 p.m. at their respective town halls. Barnwell City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. at city hall.

When asked for specific details about the meeting, Blackville Mayor Mike Beasley said the meeting will deal with "donated property," but he said he couldn't discuss further details until after the meeting. Williston Mayor Jason Stapleton said he couldn't provide any details until after the meeting. Attempts to reach Barnwell Mayor Edward Lemon were unsuccessful before press time.

The towns all have property inside their limits that is controlled by the Barnwell Economic Development Corporation, part of the Barnwell Economic Development Commission. Barnwell County retains ownership of those lands, said Barnwell County Attorney J.D. Mosteller.

These meetings come on the heels of Barnwell County Council's recent discussions as to the future of the EDC.

At the regular council meeting Dec. 10, council voted to have the council's government committee meet with the EDC and the SouthernCarolina Alliance - which works to bring industry to a six-county region that includes Barnwell County - and develop a proposal for how to move forward.

When asked about the three town-council meetings and a connection with the EDC possibly being shut down, County Administrator Pickens Williams Jr. said he hadn't heard anything about that and to his knowledge no decision on the future of the EDC had been made.

Barnwell County Chairman Freddie Houston said he didn't know anything about the meetings and a possible connection to the EDC. He did say the county's ordinance for the EDC states the land managed by the EDC cannot be donated or given back to the municipalities without county council voting on it.

Houston said county council has taken no such action.

Attempts to reach Marty Martin, the EDC's executive director, on his cell phone were unsuccessful. A reporter stopped by the EDC office shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, but the doors were locked and no one answered. No one picked up the phone at the office throughout the day.

On the agenda for county council's Dec. 10 meeting was the "first reading of an ordinance related to realignment of the Economic Development Commission." But council did not vote on the ordinance. Councilman Keith Sloan said it wouldn't be right since council had no other information other than what was on the agenda.

Sloan, who defended keeping the EDC in its current form during the council meeting, also said Tuesday he knows nothing about a connection between Wednesday's council meetings and the EDC properties.

Attempts to reach EDC Chairman Pete Grady about the situation were unsuccessful before press time.

The three meetings come after a quorum of Barnwell County Council members met illegally with SouthernCarolina Alliance CEO Danny Black followed by a second illegal meeting with EDC Director Marty Martin.