Council denies Chamber’s $ request

BLYTHEWOOD – It was announced at the July breakfast meeting of the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce that the Chamber would be moving forward in its current location and that it would be joined after Aug. 1, by both Bravo Blythewood and the Blythewood Artists Guild, and that the Chamber would be once again taking charge of the Blythewood Visitors Center that is currently being operated by Town Hall.

But when those plans came before the Blythewood Town Council Monday evening, accompanied by a request from Chamber Director Phil Frye for $5,500 to make it all possible, council voted 3-2 to deny the funding. The funds were requested to help pay about $14,000 for rent and utilities.

Frye explained in an email to council that the Chamber currently sublets space from another tenant at 130 McNulty Road across from the Sheriff’s substation, paying $700 for a portion of the rent and utilities.

“We have been informed by the tenant from whom we’re subletting of their intent to discontinue their lease as of Aug. 1, 2020, leaving us with either relocating again or finding a way to absorb the full costs of the current facilities,” Frye wrote.

Some council members let it be known right off that they were not in favor of funding those costs.

Councilman Sloan Griffin was concerned on two levels – that the request was made a month after the annual budget was approved and because many businesses in the town are hurting financially as they try to survive the pandemic.

“I don’t know about this in our COVID environment,” Griffin said. “So many people are on the way to eviction. A lot of businesses would like to have that $5,500 just to survive. It would be a slap in their face to give you $5,500 for rent and utilities in this current environment. Come back again in between December and February.”

Councilman Donald Brock agreed.

“The optics are not there,” Brock said. “People are suffering. The Town [government] is going to take a hit. I’m willing to wager that April through June, and July on forward, the Town’s receipts are going to be down. I think they’re going to be down more than some people realize, and will continue to get worse in the fall into the winter. A visitor center in Blythewood? Who, during COVID, is visiting here?” Brock asked. “Why would we have a visitor center that, quite frankly, wasn’t really impactful before and now we open one in the middle of a global pandemic? It sends the wrong message.

“I can’s support something like this when I voted against the budget because it took $130,000 from the rainy day fund to fully fund events which probably are not going to happen. I can’t support this,” he said.

Brock asked Town Administrator Brian Cook how many visitors come through the visitor center which is currently located at Town Hall.

“Lately, no one,” Cook said. “But prior to COVID it was hit and miss. Some residents come in to pay their Winnsboro water bills. But tourists, if you will – not a lot. Not a lot at all.”

Brock then asked Frye how many visited when the visitors center was previously housed in the Chamber office.

Frye said he would have to check the Chamber’s records to be sure.

It was reported in the June 28, 2018 issue of The Voice that about 30 or so out-of-towners visited the visitors center during the first six months of 2018. One council member told The Voice that during a meeting at chamber offices in June of that year, he viewed only 67 names on the visitors registry since the first of that year and that half of them were from Blythewood, not visitors to the town. At the time, council was providing the Chamber with $18,000 of A-tax funds annually for the visitor’s center.

Mayor Bryan Franklin was the only one who spoke up for the Chamber, saying that the life blood of the community comes from its small businesses. But he also agreed with Councilman Sloan Griffin that “we’ll have a long conversation in December through February, as Sloan Griffin points out about financial management, about charging your members, paying the bills for your operations first.

“I’m not saying you did a poor job of that at the Chamber of Commerce,” Franklin continued, “I’m just saying in the future you have to take care of that. When you make a profit from these large events, what are you doing with that profit? I get it. I get both sides of the argument. But I think to stymie the efforts of our Chamber who runs more events in this town than any other nonprofit does, is probably not the right thing to do at this time when we’re hurting so bad as a community.”

One member of the audience, Rich McKenrick, spoke to the issue, urging council to vote against the Chamber’s funding request, saying the request was ridiculous and not well thought through.

No one but Frye spoke for the funding.

After the comments, Franklin called for a motion on the agenda item. When no one spoke up after a long silence, Councilman Baughman, who had made no comments for or against the funding, finally spoke.

“I’ll go out on a limb and make a motion to approve,” Baughman said.

After another full minute of uncomfortable silence with no one seconding Baughman’s motion, Franklin seconded it, “just to get the vote on the record,” he said.

The motion to fund the Chamber failed 2-3 in a roll call vote with Baughman and Franklin voting for, and Sloan Griffin, Brock and Larry Griffin voting against.

Contacted after the meeting about the Chamber’s plans going forward, Frye said he had no comment except to say he was disappointed with the vote. He said the decision about future plans will be made by the Chamber board.