Britt Blackwell, a Rock Hill eye doctor and freshman chairman of York County Council, announced his bid for re-election this week touting his focus on helping businesses and taxpayers, and his role in seeing the county’s museums through controversial changes.
Blackwell is a Republican serving his first two-year term in the District 6 seat, representing northwestern Rock Hill and the Newport area. He’ll face Rock Hill businessman Gary Williams in June’s GOP primary.
In a news release, Blackwell highlighted the council’s economic development efforts, which include pushing county staff to improve the way they provide services to local businesses.
Some York County legislators have noticed the council’s efforts to bring together state and local economic development officials. Blackwell and the council twice invited state commerce officials to York County.
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State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said the move was unusual and “definitely a good idea.”
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, noted Blackwell’s “concerted effort” to reach out to the state, he said. But prior to 2008 “the economy was robust. You always had to search for businesses, but the economy was growing at such a rate...the fruit was falling off the tree.”
Now county leaders must work to keep existing businesses by cutting “red tape,” he said.
In another economic development effort, Blackwell said the council is building an alliance between York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
The council recently approved spending $25,000 to help rebuild the alliance, first formed in 2005 to help market a Chester County property whose development would benefit the region, said Mark Farris, York County economic development director. The alliance never got off the ground because it lacked administrative support.
The council has supported reviving the alliance, which may help the region compete for state economic development funds, Farris said.
Williams said the move toward a regional partnership was a step in the right direction.
“Anything that brings people up this way is a real plus,” said Williams, who owns a debt-collection agency in Rock Hill.
But Williams said the council should be taking more action, forging more “inclusive” partnerships, bringing together state and local government, economic development boards, higher education leaders, chambers of commerce, and other entities to form a “collective voice.”
“When you have six, seven, eight bodies like that together, I think it makes a big difference in Columbia,” he said.
That’s something the council has been working toward, Blackwell said.
“The more people the better,” he said Wednesday. “But you’re talking to groups that have had it done a certain way” for some time and it takes time to make changes, he said.
“We’re hoping (the council’s efforts have) brought forth seeds that will grow,” he said.
Blackwell said a restructuring of the Culture and Heritage Museums brought more accountability to the museums and the Culture and Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit formed to support the museums.
The council replaced the museums’ governing board with an all new, smaller one. The new board reorganized the museums, eliminating several top staff positions. Amid the transition, the museums’ long-time director, Van Shields, resigned.
Both the county council and the museum’s new leadership severed ties with the foundation, which owns land on the Catawba River once slated for a new county museum, a project the commission tabled last year. The S.C. Secretary of State’s office is investigating the foundation, and has subpoenaed banking records related to a planned residential and commercial development that fell through. No details about the investigation have been made public.
Williams, who serves on the foundation’s board of directors, was a leading critic of the museum changes last year, publicly criticizing the county council for eliminating talented employees.
He says the museum, with the transition behind it and a new director, is on an “upswing.”
Blackwell also said he’s brought “unity” to the council, a claim Councilman Bump Roddey, a Democrat from Rock Hill, challenged.
“There’s respect on the council from one opinion to the next,” Roddey said, “but when you look at the goals, there’s no unity.”
Roddey said council members have diverging ideas for what the county needs, but wouldn’t elaborate.
“There’s only a perceived unity among those who vote with the chairman,” Roddey said. They’re the “go-along to get-along” group.
“Certainly Mr. Roddey has his opinion and I just politely disagree,” Blackwell responded. “I’ve always told Bump that I’m willing to work with him on anything in his district.”
Councilman Bruce Henderson said while the “conservative majority is going to agree” most of the time, “we still will have our differences” and don’t always vote together.
Though “some personalities don’t click sometimes,” the council overall has been successful “getting things accomplished” and Blackwell has helped, Henderson said.
Henderson said Blackwell is “one of the most concerned chairmen” he’s ever known and “looks after his own district” as well as the others’ districts “at the same time.”