Economic marketing moves to SCA after vote

A new contract was approved by Barnwell County Council on Tuesday, Sept. 19 which effectively moves marketing of the county’s economic development property as well as the Economic Development Commission’s executive director position under SouthernCarolina Alliance (SCA). The contract also quadruples the county’s payment to SCA from $15,000 annually to $60,000 annually.

The contract was approved unanimously with the exception of David Kenner who was absent from the meeting.

At that meeting, Councilman Jerry Creech moved to approve the contract, a copy of which was in the packets provided to the councilmen on Friday, Sept. 15. During discussion, Councilman Freddie Houston asked Creech if the contract was a continuation of contract, “no new debt, identical to the one in the past?” Creech said, “Right, you are supposed to have a copy in your packet.”

But, in reality, the contract is very different from the one approved in 2011.

Under the new five-year contract, the executive director will now become part of SCA’s “team” to “provide full-time direction and oversight of comprehensive marketing effort for the county’s economic development program.”

Tommy Boyleston currently holds that position.

SCA will be paid $60,000 to market the county’s economic projects. Additionally, “SCA will provide oversight and facilitate any maintenance or repairs of county-owned development offerings, but will not be responsible for financial obligations in doing so. Repairs, maintenance, insurance, etc. will be the responsibility of the county.”

The contract also states the “SCA President will be ultimately responsible for all activities associated with this agreement” and will seek advice, feedback and direction from the county council chair, the county administrator and the EDC board chair “if applicable”. Danny Black is SCA President.

When asked Friday, Sept. 22 about the differences in the 2011 and 2017 contracts, Creech said the new contract “is essentially the same as the one offered to the county by SCA in May 2015.”

He said the agreement “offers significant savings to the county” as the executive director’s current salary is $60,000 plus expenses. The county has also been reimbursing SCA for an assistant to the director. “All that will be under SCA now,” said Creech.

He said, “There is nothing secret in the contract.”

In May 2015, Creech proposed the same agreement but was met with fierce resistance from then-County Councilmen Keith Sloan and Joe Smith.

Both Sloan and Smith now are no longer county councilmen but are commissioners on the EDC.

Two years ago Creech briefed the Economic Development Commission of the proposed agreement because “he wanted to make sure they knew what was going on” but current EDC Chairman Steve Jowers said the EDC had not been notified anytime recently.

At that 2015 meeting, Councilman Lowell Jowers said the agreement was a “mirror” of one he proposed in 2014 but was defeated. He indicated his approval of Creech’s proposal. “We need to get off the dime and let SCA hire a director (for the EDC).”

At that 2015 meeting, Councilman Sloan verbally tore into Creech, accusing him of “reneging” on the agreement crafted with the municipalities.

Move forward two years.

“We are doing what is best for Barnwell County,” said Creech of the 2017 contract. “We are trying to make economic development in Barnwell County more efficient.”

With regards to the EDC board, Creech said, “There are no plans, no changes.”

Houston has a very different take on the matter. “I am very disappointed and feel like this was a deception.”

He said he was unable to download his packet to his county-provided tablet on Friday and didn’t get it until Monday afternoon. Additionally, the council was not provided with the 2011 contract for comparison.

“I specifically asked him (Creech) if this was the same contract and he said yes. I have learned my lesson. It was his intention to deceive the council.”

He said he can’t argue with the fact that he had the opportunity to read the new contract before the meeting and now knows that the assumption he made that the two contracts were identical was in error.

Additionally, he said he has learned of a proposal of another agreement which was never provided to the whole council. “I understand some members of the council had copies. Why wasn’t everyone on council given a copy? It might have been something that could have made the lawsuit go away,” said Houston.

Barnwell County is currently being sued by the towns of Barnwell, Blackville and Williston over the EDC.

When asked about the new contract between the county and SCA, Economic Development Commission Chairman Steve Jowers said this contract “was not brought to the EDC by anyone.”

He said he attended the Barnwell County Council meeting Tuesday evening due to an agenda item which pertained to the sale of the “Main Street Building”, an EDC project. He said he was not aware of the SCA contract agenda item nor the contract’s details.

Asked if he knew about the contract in advance of the council vote, EDC Executive Director Tommy Bolyeston said this week he was unaware of the contract’s contents until after it was passed. He said he is scheduled to meet with Council Chairman Lowell Jowers this week regarding the changes and how it impacts his office.

Boyleston confirmed he drafted an alternative agreement and had brought it before EDC commissioners and several councilmen but no action had been taken on it.

Historical context

The significance of the county council’s vote is that moving the executive director’s position and the EDC under SCA is what triggered the EDC commission in 2012 to transfer all assets of the corporation to the three municipalities and “fire” the executive director and his deputy director which, in turn, triggered a 5-year buyout clause in their contracts.

It took over a year but the municipalities later reached an agreement to restructure the EDC to allow representation by municipal-appointed members as well as county council-appointed members. The towns then deeded the property and assets to the corporation.

A new commission was formed, an executive director hired and work on economic development went forward.

In the meantime, the county filed suit against the former executive director and deputy director to get returned the money paid to them from the buyout clause. The suit against the director was later dropped as a result of a settlement. However, the county lost its lawsuit against the deputy director.

In March 2017, county council agreed in a split vote to “modify the powers of the EDC” and dissolve the corporation which held the properties. That prompted the municipalities of Barnwell, Blackville and Williston to file suit against the county contending the county council had breached their agreement with the towns. The lawsuit is still pending.

Councilman Houston said he feels the new contract with SCA now puts the county’s position regarding the lawsuit in jeopardy. “We still don’t know what the judge is going to do,” said Houston of the non-jury civil suit that will be determined by a judge.

Houston said he will bring the contract issue back to council at their next meeting in October.

“I am very disappointed. I was lied to,” said Houston.