In the 1980s, the Federal Aviation Administration was convinced to release money from the Chem Nuclear compact surcharge fund to be used exclusively for industrial development in Barnwell County.
The Economic Development Corporation was created to hold those funds. The Economic Development Commission (EDC) was created to oversee the corporation. Doing so made it possible for the commission to make real estate transactions without having to hold three readings or find competitive bids as law requires for the county council to do. In the economic development world, confidentiality is crucial and the corporation/commission made that possible.
For 30 or so years, the system worked well.
Then, for some reason, there were those who suggested moving the EDC under SouthernCarolina Alliance, a multi-county regional economic development organization.
Whether or not that action was imminent, the commission took the risk of that suggestion seriously.
Just over three years ago those members of the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission took the step of no return by deeding over $14 million in property and money to the municipalities of Barnwell, Blackville and Williston.
Members of the Barnwell County Council were infuriated that $14 million of the county’s assets had been given away as well as embarrassed at having been taken so off-guard.
The municipalities saw an opportunity to have a voice in economic development as a majority of the properties lay within municipal boundaries.
It took a while for tempers to cool and nearly a year for the county council and the municipalities to come to an agreement. Not everyone was happy but the best negotiations are the result of give-and-take. Still, the negotiations took time, money and did little to create real trust between the parties. Trust would take time.
An ensuing investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Solicitor determined that while the actions by the former EDC were maddening, they had done nothing illegal.
In 2015 the newly-appointed members of the Economic Development Commission started meeting and working to recruit industry to Barnwell County as well as taking care of the property “owned” by the corporation. New staff were hired, files were updated, the bank accounts audited and cooperation accomplished. Representatives of the county and municipalities started to trust each other.
In the meantime the county council took action to make sure that such a transfer of money and assets could never happen again. While the EDC could still negotiate and transact, final approval was necessary by the Barnwell County Council. The amount of money the EDC could spend was limited. Most recently, all monetary accounts held by the EDC were required to be moved under the treasurer although a fixed amount was left available for daily expenses.
While the loopholes of the past were closed, a working relationship seemed to be on the horizon between local governments. Additionally and more importantly, economic development has been on the up-tick.
Then, at the January meeting of the Barnwell County Council, an ordinance was proposed to dissolve the corporation and take all power from the Economic Development Commission. If the ordinance eventually passes, the EDC will be strictly advisory.
It was obvious that the county attorney had been directed by someone on council to draft the ordinance long before the meeting. It was also obvious that not everyone on council knew about the proposal until they received their packets in advance of the meeting.
Now the municipalities are seeking an opinion from the Attorney General to see if the county can vacate its agreement with them and if there is a conflict of interest because there are members of the county council who are on the SouthernCarolina Alliance board.
Whatever fragile trust that had been rebuilt between the county and the municipalities has now been fractured.
The “solid” front of local governments to industrial prospects is now an illusion.
Money is being spent on lawyers, again.
Our question to the Barnwell County Council members who sponsored this ordinance is: Why now?
Just when trust was being built between local governments, why destroy it now?
The loopholes have been closed so the county has the last say before property can be transferred or large sums of money spent, so why gut the EDC now?
The Economic Development Commission seems to be functioning well with local and prospective industries, cooperatively with SouthernCarolina Alliance, and representing Barnwell County well locally, regionally and on the state level, so why destroy that effort now?
To dissolve the corporation will create functional barriers to economic development by eliminating a system that worked for over 30 years. Why do that now?
It is our opinion that if this ordinance is adopted, it will cause irreparable damage for no reasonable gain for Barnwell County.
Let this ordinance die, now.