Contract debated in EDC meeting

Many political emotions were aired during a civil but tense meeting of the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission last week.

The special Sept. 28 meeting was held to discuss a new service agreement Barnwell County Council approved on Sept. 19 with SouthernCarolina Alliance (SCA), a seven-county regional economic development organization. The new $60,000 contract, which is $45,000 more than the county was previously paying to SCA, essentially moves marketing of the county’s economic development property along with the Economic Development Commission’s (EDC) director under SCA.

“We have some questions and seek some answers. I would pray, gentlemen, that this meeting be civil and straightforward and truthful,” said EDC Chairman Steve Jowers, who represents the Town of Blackville.

Also in attendance were EDC board members Toby Singletary (Towns of Elko, Hilda, Kline and Snelling), Joe Smith (City of Barnwell), Keith Sloan (Town of Williston), Will Kearse (county appointed) and Patrick Richardson (county appointed); EDC director Tommy Boyleston, and EDC administrative assistant Pam Nobles. Councilmen Jerry Creech and Don Harper, county council’s liaisons to the EDC, were also present.

Jowers said he had lunch with his brother, Barnwell County Council Chairman Lowell Jowers, earlier in the day to discuss the new contract. Steve Jowers was told “this particular document does not turn over corporation funds or properties to SCA.”

“We have never attempted to do that,” said Creech of county council.

Steve Jowers asked if the new contract was a “ploy” to force EDC Executive Director Tommy Boyleston into a job with SCA and leave the EDC board without a director.

Creech explained that the council’s lawyer in Columbia advised them that the contract was legal, which is why they placed a copy in each councilman’s packet a few days before the Sept. 19 council meeting.

When asked what money would be used to pay for maintaining properties and Boyleston’s salary if he moves to SCA, Creech said it would be paid out of EDC money. This led Steve Jowers to ask how council can do that when EDC funds must be approved by the EDC board.

“Our lawyer says we’ve got that right,” said Creech.

“Our lawyer says you don’t,” responded Keith Sloan. He and Smith are former county council members.

Jowers asked Creech why council couldn’t wait for a pending lawsuit against the county to be resolved before implementing this contract. The municipalities of Barnwell, Blackville and Williston filed the lawsuit, claiming an ordinance approved March 14 by county council “was adopted illegally” and “violates and breaches the agreements between the Municipalities and the County.” Those agreements, giving the municipalities representation on the EDC board, were negotiated in 2014 after the EDC was restructured and a new board formed.

“Why did you have to go ahead and force the issue further and create more chaos and discontent in this county between these two boards? Is it that urgent?” asked Jowers.

“We want to move on,” Creech said. “We feel this is the right move for Barnwell County.”

“I think the more important question is, is this board going to do things that are right for Barnwell County,” asked Patrick Richardson, referring to the EDC board. This was his first meeting as an EDC board member.

Jowers said that’s what he and his fellow board members have been trying to do since the new EDC board was formed. However, “we’ve been based on the previous board.”

The previous EDC board was removed by county council in December 2013 after they gave away $14 million in property and assets to the three municipalities. The board also fired director Marty Martin and deputy director Sonya Hiers “without cause”, which triggered a five-year buyout in their newly-negotiated contracts. At the time, the board stated they took those actions because they understood county council was about to dissolve the EDC and move economic development efforts to SCA.

Boyleston, who was hired as EDC director in April 2016, said he feels he’s tried to work with county council and abide by their wishes because they ultimately own the corporation and the EDC’s bylaws require them to abide by council’s wishes. He has also worked with SCA and said they are “very capable of handling economic development”, although he also believes the EDC has proven itself to be able to do the same thing in conjunction with SCA.

He said he is torn over this contract because he feels a “loyalty” to the EDC board and “responsibility” to county council.

Though he doesn’t know what his full responsibilities would be if he works for SCA, Boyleston acknowledged he wouldn’t be working totally for Barnwell County as he does now.

Sloan said he believes the old EDC board was wrong in its actions, but they were found by a judge to be legal. He also said SCA should not be part of the discussion because he admires what they have done. However, the real issue is that the new contract takes away the voice of the municipalities. He said it was a “disservice” to not include the towns in the discussion before the contract was approved.

“This contract eliminates the towns,” said Smith of how it states SCA staff will work with county council, its administrative staff and the “county-appointed Economic Development Commission” and its staff in reaching goals.

Currently, four of the seven EDC board members are appointed by the municipalities while county council appoints the other three. However, Smith expressed his concern with the wording in the new contract.

“The board will not change,” said Creech numerous times.

After a lot more discussion and accusations about the past, Jowers said it doesn’t matter who was right or wrong because they can’t do anything about the past. “This is 2017, a new era. What matters is if we are going to get it right now.”

“This battle has been going on too long and is hurting this county,” said Boyleston. He said it’s impossible to tell, but the lack of communication and trust in the county could cause potential industries to look past Barnwell County.

Kearse, who does business locally and in other counties, said he’s heard from people interested in doing business who are concerned about the mistrust and tension in Barnwell County. He said he’s also seen how the county is lagging behind other communities. He said he would like to see his children move back here after college and find “gainful employment”, but he’s not sure that will happen if things continue the way they are.

“I’m for Barnwell County,” he said. “Whatever we need to do to be successful, we need to get on it. We have no clear path of moving forward.”

“I hope y’all realize I was born in Barnwell County and want the best for Barnwell County,” said Creech, adding how a majority of council feels the same.

Boyleston said they need to look at where they want Barnwell County to be in five to 10 years. “Are we really trying to put in place something that will really work well for this county or are we trying to settle old scores? It seems it’s more about egos than what’s best for Barnwell County.”

“We can talk all night but it’s apparent that county council has made up its mind,” said Jowers before adjourning the meeting after 73 minutes of discussion.

Sloan said he would talk with Williston Town Council to see what they want to do. He suggested his fellow board members do the same with their respective municipalities.

In the meantime, legal fees continue to mount on all sides.