Intergov Meeting Focuses on Economic Development

RIDGEWAY (Feb. 26, 2016) – Intergovernmental meetings have a reputation of being either mundane, elbow-rubbing affairs, or fur-flying cat fights between elected officials. Last week’s meeting at the Century House found a middle ground.

With the focus of the Feb. 18 meeting on economic development, particularly in the wake of last month’s closing of Walmart in Winnsboro, State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) set the tone.

“I think this is a time to unite,” Coleman said, then told County Council officials, “I’m excited about the (strategic) plan that y’all are doing. I think it’s time the County and City sit down and try to work together jointly on Winnsboro, the town of Winnsboro, to make it a viable entity in our county.”

Fairfield County is at a critical state, Coleman said, and the County holds the purse strings.

“Let’s face it: Winnsboro’s got a little bit of money, the County’s got a lot of money, going to have a lot of money coming in the future,” Coleman said. “I don’t mean to be casting stones and don’t want to, but sometimes I think the County doesn’t want to help downtown because it’s downtown. I know y’all do the Courthouse and Town Clock, but to me there’s more to it than that. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Interim County Administrator Milton Pope said he was not aware of any request for assistance from the Town of Winnsboro that has not been honored. However, he added, the respective roles of the elected bodies were “terribly misunderstood.” There is a mindset, Pope said, that the County has all the money and should therefore “be able to do anything and everything.”

“To a certain degree that is reality,” Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy interjected. “The County does have all the money. We are the richest poor county in South Carolina. Because we get all this money from V.C. Summer we have tremendous amount of expectations from the county, and I think sometimes you can fulfill those and sometimes you can’t.”

But, Gaddy said, he did not know of anything the County had not helped Winnsboro with when Winnsboro had asked.

“I think that the shortcoming between the Town and the County is in economic development,” Gaddy said. “There has been little or no communications between the County and the Town on economic development. The Town has been totally left out of it and we’re the ones who provide the utilities.”

Terry Vickers, President of the Chamber of Commerce, said there were plenty of opportunities for businesses in the county, but the trick was promoting and selling Fairfield. That is difficult to do, she said, when even the leadership cannot get on the same page.

“We shoot ourselves in the foot every day,” Vickers said. “I was absolutely mortified at the social media comments that went online when Walmart made their (closing) announcement. I have never been so put out and disgusted with the citizens of Fairfield County that were so negative. Even leaders who have people who look up to them, talking so negative about leadership, about taxes, about theft. And of course, everything on the street was that Walmart closed because of a theft issue. That was not the major reason and that came straight from Sen. Coleman who had met with the executives from Walmart. But still we have people in a position where they are looked up to and they talk about theft in our community. I’m sorry folks, that’s not how you attract tourists or businesses, developers or housing. Nothing.”

Vickers said businesses are looking at space in downtown Winnsboro, but the buildings that are available are in such disrepair – some costing as much as $300,000 to upfit – companies are reluctant to settle here.

“When they look at the upfitting, the rent and property taxes,” Vickers said, “are they willing to take a chance on Winnsboro that just lost a Walmart to come in here? Those are the things we need to look at. If we truly want to attract business in this community, we need to be an attractive community.”

Vickers said Ridgeway was thriving with only one block of merchants. Winnsboro, meanwhile, has three blocks, she said, with two restaurants, a gift shop, two consignment shops and a thrift store. Taking up one of the largest spaces on Congress Street, she said, was a building filled with antiques that, sadly, were not for sale.

“If the paper would come out of that window, if that door could be unlocked, that would be the hook for Winnsboro’s success,” Vickers said. “There would be interior designers from all over the east coast that would come to Winnsboro to shop, that’s how fantastic they are. But no, it is a warehouse for a hoarder. How did that happen?”

Vickers said if Downtown Winnsboro and the county at large is to survive in the wake of Walmart’s closing, businesses need their local governments behind them.

“We have got to change our communication, we have got to change our reputation, we have got to change our outlook,” Vickers said. “The businesses need the support of the decisions that elected bodies make. I have seen so many opportunities missed because we could not come together and agree.”

 

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