Council stretches negotiations on MPA Strategies contract to April 26

Jerry Rega criticizes council for MPA Strategies pick. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – Raising his voice in angry criticism at the end of a special called town council meeting on April 1, Jerry Rega, representing the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce, called for council members to reconsider a proposal submitted by the chamber in January in response to town council’s Request for Proposal (RFP) to provide promotional, branding and grant writing services for the Town.

The services were to be at least partially funded with 30 percent (approximately $40,000) of the Town’s State Accommodation Tax (SAT) revenue which is required to go to a non-profit with an ongoing tourism program or one with the ability to enable such a program. If not used for that purpose, the 30 percent funds must be returned to the state.

Rega’s criticism followed a two-and-a-half hour executive session of council members that was punctuated by bickering so loud at times that it was audible in the hallway outside the closed chamber doors.

At issue is an ongoing acrimonious division on council about who to award the 30 percent SAT funds to – MPA Strategies or the chamber.

The chamber’s proposal lost out to MPA Strategies’ by a vote of 3-2 at the Feb. 22 council meeting, with council members Larry Griffin, Donald Brock and Sloan Griffin voting for MPA Strategies. Mayor Brian Franklin and Councilman Eddie Baughman voted against.

But the angst continues and the contract is still not settled, partly because, instead of voting to authorize Franklin or Town Administrator Carroll Williamson to sign the contract with MPA Strategies, council gave Franklin the authority along with Town Attorney Shannon Burnett to negotiate the contract.  That negotiation has since become contentious.

Franklin, who has voted against MPA from the outset, and Burnett have made  a number of changes to MPA Strategies’ proposal that Brock and Sloan Griffin say are preventing MPA Strategies from being able to sign the contract.

Franklin and Baughman favored awarding the contract to the chamber with 10 percent of the award (about $4,000) going directly to the chamber for oversight of services. The chamber’s director, Phil Frye, said he would enlist only chamber members to provide the requested promotional and grant writing services and that their work would be overseen by some combination of the chamber board, members of the town’s leadership and staff and perhaps others. Both Baughman and Franklin voted against MPA Strategies at the Feb. 22 council meeting.

Larry Griffin voted for MPA Strategies at that meeting, expressing his doubt that Frye would be able to oversee the various separate businesses he has selected to perform the promotional, branding and grant writing services for the Town.

Councilmen Donald Brock and Sloan Griffin also voted on Feb. 22 to award the contract to MPA Strategies, a firm based in Cayce whose tourism promotional work, they say, is extensive and is recommended by a long list of S.C. towns as well as the S.C. Municipal Association.

Ashley Hunter, owner of MPA Strategies, said she writes about $3 million in grants a year and brings in about $2 million. Sloan Griffin said Hunter’s grant revenue alone would more than pay for her services. Of the four grants written by the grant writer proposed by Frye, only one was granted. One was not granted and three of the four were not actually grants, but requests for funding from the town for the chamber, Brock said at the Feb. 22 meeting.

Franklin and Baughman initially said they favored the chamber because the funds paid for the services would stay in the town. Only one of the businesses proposed by the chamber to provide services, however, is actually located in the town. The others are located elsewhere including in Columbia, the unincorporated area of Richland County and Charleston.

The Feb. 22 vote called for the contract to be signed by April 1. With negotiations not finalized, Franklin called the special meeting on April 1 for council to vote to “continue negotiations, end negotiations or modify the contract.”

After two failed motions by the two Councilmen Griffin – to continue negotiating the contract until April 26 – failed, Brock made a third motion to offer a six-month contract that he felt MPA could work with. Larry Griffin jumped the fence, however, and voted with Baughman and Franklin in a 3-2 vote against Brock’s proposed agreement, saying he (Larry Griffin) understood from Burnett that MPA Strategies does not yet have a valid non-profit status.

However, MPA Strategies’ State and Frink Foundation (the non-profit) is listed with the S.C. Secretary of State’s office.

In the end, council ended up voting 4-1 on a fourth motion put forth by Sloan Griffin to extend the negotiations until council’s next regular meeting on April 26. Baughman vote against.

Brock and the two Councilmen Griffin told The Voice they voted to extend the negotiations to keep the contract with MPA Strategies in play.

Baughman said he voted against all motions that night because he wants to give the money to businesses in town.

After the half-an-hour or so that it took council to reach the final vote, Rega rose to criticize council for continuing to negotiate with MPA Strategies.

“It’s pretty obvious that discussions with the MPA or whoever it is, aren’t going anywhere. You’ve had two months to come to some agreement,” Rega said. “Why not continue discussions with the chamber who also provided a proposal. You want to go six months with an organization you can’t even [reach an agreement] with after two months… How do you think you can really work [with MPA] for anything longer than that?… I wish you guys the best of luck,” he said, raising his voice. “I’ll just put it out on the table. Phil’s here… and he offered you a proposal. I would suggest you go back and talk to Phil to work something out.”

Rega, owner of Regal Printing in Northeast Columbia, ended his comments by calling MPA Strategies a “shell company that’s a non-profit. That’s a joke,” he said, claiming that MPA Strategies did not meet the requirements as required by the state to receive SAT money.

The next vote on the issue is scheduled for the regular council meeting to be held April 26 at The Manor.

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