BAMBERG -- The SouthernCarolina Alliance will work to improve everything from rural broadband to the region’s brand image, Executive Director Danny Black told Bamberg County Council last week.
Bamberg County has already applied for a $3 million grant from USDA Rural Development's Community Connect Grant Program to expand broadband access to underserved rural areas. It is partnering with Orangeburg Broadband to build the system.
"We're going to ask for money across the region, too. There's $600 million out there for broadband coverage for the nation. We certainly want to get our share," Black said.
The SCA is a regional development group serving seven counties, including Bamberg.
Those counties contain areas designated as federal Opportunity Zones, which are able to give tax incentives to encourage long-term, private investment in low-income communities.
Black said the SCA is seeking a grant to allow it to, "come in with a team of experts that will look at all the Opportunity Zones in the seven-county region and choose the one they think has the most value and will have the best return to the counties." He said he hopes the process will begin in May.
Black said the Bamberg-Barnwell-Allendale-Hampton region has particularly been hit hard by several factors, including low per-capita income rates and population loss.
"We are going to do some very positive marketing in the four-county area. We're starting out with Bamberg and Allendale first. We're bringing in an expert team to advise us, or try to offset some of the negative things that are going on in the counties," he said.
"Both Bamberg and Allendale have high poverty levels. The median income in Bamberg County is $19,000 and in Allendale it's $13,000," he said. While people are working, they are not making as much as those in larger neighboring counties.
"We’ve got to turn that around," he said.
Black said a CNN report on Denmark's water system did not help.
He said, "When CNN says that we have a poisonous water system in one of our towns, people pay attention to that. Whether it's true or not - obviously we don't think it is true - if it shows up on that kind of media, we're in trouble.
"We had a very large (food processing) company looking at one of our locations, and we feel certain the reason they have not chosen us is because of that article. ... We believe that we're going to probably lose that company to a neighboring county. We're still fighting for it, but we know it's in a tough situation," Black said.
"We'll have marketing people in here hopefully by the end of the month that will be interviewing you again," he added, noting that he'd also like input from members of the Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County.
Also during the meeting, county residents aired their concerns.
Ken Ahlin said he had not yet received requested information on when public hearings were held regarding a USDA loan application for courthouse renovations.
"How are we really going to get to the nuts and bolts of what is being proposed aside from a press release? ... We would like some more specifics," Ahlin said.
He suggested the county notify residents of meetings and hearings by email.
John Gleaton asked why a new county courthouse annex was built instead of the existing courthouse being repaired. When county voters approved the 1 percent capital projects sales tax in 2012, the courthouse renovation was listed as one of the projects funded by the tax.
Council Chairman Trent Kinard said he agreed. While he wasn't on council at the time, he did request a copy of the referendum question, which he said also provided for the construction of "additional buildings."
“It doesn't do the taxpayers justice. That's the problem we’ve got now," Gleaton said, adding that population loss and lack of industry are creating a greater tax burden on residents.
"We're fixing to add on more if we have to do what Mr. Preston tells us to do. That's what I'm not happy with," Gleaton said.
Dean Fralix said, "We’re spending too much money. ... A lot of us think that the leadership is trying to spend more money to fix problems, ... but if you continue to spend money we don't have, you just dig the hole deeper."
He asked that council meet with the public more to discuss issues.
Gerald Maynor said the lack of a grocery store in the city of Bamberg still bothers him and asked if his idea of developing a food cooperative was considered.
Kinard said he and the administrator talked with several companies, but to no avail.
"It's a tough sell. It's a tough sell with the number of people we’ve got. It's a tough sell when they say, 'You’ve got a grocery store seven miles away.' ... It's a lot to us because you’ve got a lot of people here that do not have vehicles. And it worries me," Kinard said.
The council chairman said he would be reaching out to Columbia Mayor Steven Benjamin, who Maynor said had opened a food co-op in a community that lost a Bi-Lo.
Kim Compton thanked council for setting up chairs in the hallway for residents to sit during the meeting and for also having the meeting displayed on TV screens in that area.
"I really do appreciate that. That's working together. ... And we've got to do that in bigger ways as well," she said.
In other matters:
• Council approved a resolution thanking retiring Bamberg County Chamber of Commerce Director Jerry Bell for his service. A member of the chamber since 2008, he has served as director since 2013. He said he will still be around to work with the Edisto River Paddle Trips.
"I've had a blast at the chamber. I’ve still got a month to work. It has been a pleasure, it really has. Every little, small thing we can do, I think, makes a difference, and I hope we've made a little bit of a difference," he said.
• Preston reported the Lower Savannah Council of Governments will hold one of three long-range transportation planning meetings from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, in the cafeteria of Mellichamp Elementary School at 350 Murray Road SW in Orangeburg.
He also reported that the county has been approved for a loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Facilities Program for the addition of a substation in the Rivers Bridge community.
"With that, we'll be able to ... reduce some insurance rates for those citizens in that district," he said.
The administrator said the county is waiting on the delivery of granite before it completes its Veterans Memorial project.
"Each marker, of course, has granite and it's being cut right now. I was told last week they expect a delivery probably in the next couple of weeks," he said.
• Following a public hearing on the matter, council gave final third-reading approval to an ordinance enlarging a joint industrial park shared by Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell and Hampton counties to include Project Can Can (EOC Naturals). The company is located in Allendale County.
The Canadian-based company is set to bring 76 jobs into the area with a capital investment of $3.3 million. Bamberg County will receive 10 percent of tax revenues paid from the industry as soon as the company is operational within the next month or two.