As we watch 2013 come to a close, there are more questions than answers left to ponder for issues raised at the end of the year.
Just before Christmas, we learned Barnwell County Council had two illegal meetings in which they discussed economic development, particularly the future of the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission (EDC).
Then we learned the EDC donated its assets to the local municipalities, saying they were "ensuring" their continued use in economic development strictly for Barnwell County.
County Council's meetings included one with SouthernCarolina Alliance. SCA already provides economic development marketing for Barnwell County to a tune of $15,000 a year, but at least some county council members want SCA to be responsible for all of Barnwell County's economic development.
Led by Chairman Freddie Houston, council members have been discussing the idea for some time.
The EDC members said their organization was self-sufficient, paying back any salaries and benefits to Barnwell County at the end of the year. Taxpayers were not footing any huge bill for the services the EDC was providing.
Go back in time.
The money and assets the EDC controls were given to Barnwell County in 1987 from Chem-Nuclear, specifically for economic development for this county because of lost jobs in the past. At the time of the gift, the county council constructed the EDC for the specific purpose of marketing Barnwell County to recruit new industries. At the time, there was no SCA.
Later, the Tri-County Alliance was formed between Barnwell, Allendale and Bamberg counties to "join forces" for the recruitment of industry to the entire region. The concept was that regional economic organizations could do what individual counties didn't have the resources to accomplish but each retained their own organization.
SCA evolved from the Tri-County Alliance, later adding Hampton, Jasper and Colleton counties.
Over time, Barnwell and the other counties in the SCA technically joined forces, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, and have signed a multi-county agreement where the proceeds from any industry would be shared among the counties in a pre-determined revenue split based on the investment of the industry.
The revenue agreement itself took a long time to complete, then Barnwell County jumped ship and sought a partnership with Aiken County for a potential incoming project to keep most of the money in Barnwell County. That was an idea the towns, as well as the school districts, were particularly happy about, but other partners in the SCA were not.
EDC also did not want to share credit for those industries they landed on their own.
Moves like that caused friction and that friction between the organizations has simmered for a while.
Fast forward again to present day.
The Barnwell County EDC didn't trust county council as they learned of pending moves to fold their corporation's assets and two employess under the direction of the SCA. To "protect" those assets and employees, they donated the land and money to the municipalities and terminated their employees to trigger a buy-out clause in their contracts.
We are now left with lots of questions.
Were the EDC commission members correct in "protecting" the $14 million in assets from county council?
Will the donations the EDC made stand up in court?
What will the outcome be of the SLED investigation initiated by the county?
If they do stand up, can the financially struggling towns afford the expense of marketing their properties to industries around the country and possibly the world?
If the assets are brought back under county control, will SCA be the recipient/custodian? And at what cost?
If Barnwell County regains control, when SCA lands a new industry for a piece of that property, will Barnwell County Council again try to go outside the regional alliance to keep more of its revenue? Or will it be obligated to share the proceeds?
Who will be left to direct Barnwell County operations and services for industrial prospects?
What impact will there be on the two former EDC employees who have been swept along in this political storm?
What impact will all this manuevering have on potential industries who see a county/region at odds with itself?
Currently, none of those questions can be answered.
As 2014 begins, our sincere hope is that all of the county components will work together to bring additional higher paying jobs to Barnwell County so residents can continue to live and work here.
Mayors, town council members, county council members and economic development players must sit down and do what is best for Barnwell County as a whole. Bring the jobs, the rest will follow.
Only time will tell just how big of an impact all of this political and economic wrangling will have on Barnwell County and its residents.
Our hope for 2014 is that everyone works together.
We all must work together to bring hope and prosperity to Barnwell County once again.
We must have harmony to see growth.
Here's hoping for a positive 2014.
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