County's growth shapes its politics

FORT MILL -- Circumstances surrounding the Fort Mill mayoral race last week created "the perfect storm" to defeat veteran Mayor Charlie Powers, according to a local political expert.

It's a storm that could sweep away incumbents in York County's fast-growing eastern corridor, according to Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor who specializes in political polls and dynamics.

"The growth in Fort Mill was working against him from both sides," Huffmon said of Powers. "Folks who have lived there for awhile might fairly or unfairly lay the stresses of growth at his doorstep. The newcomers want a mayor they feel can handle the surge in growth that they were a part of."

Powers' opponent, Danny Funderburk, won in every precinct and by more than 250 votes overall. Powers had been mayor 24 years and was a town council member for six years prior to that. Funderburk has served on the council four years and gave up his council seat to run for mayor.

"I think Funderburk was able to capitalize on what seemed like a fresh voice," Huffmon said. "He had enough experience they felt he knew what he was doing. The tipping point was growth. People wanted to give someone new a chance to see if he could manage growth better."

He called Powers' defeat "a wake-up call" to longtime incumbents in the county's eastern corridor. "They need to come across as addressing the needs of newcomers and the issues of growth," he said.

Powers said growth is beyond his, or anyone's, control.

"Some people want to stop growth," Powers said, "but you can't stop it, and I tell folks that. You can keep it out of the city, but it's going to grow up all around you."

The mayor said it was difficult for people to understand that developers will build whether they are annexed into the town or not. He cites annexation of the hospital property on S.C. 160 as one action unpopular with some of his constituents.

"There's going to be a hospital on that site whether it's in the town or not," he said. "It would have been a shame for that hospital to have been built and us sitting across the street. Without annexation, a new development loads us down with traffic, and we have no control over what they do. With annexation, we get some tax benefits and some control."

Powers said he's not sour grapes. He's proud of many things he accomplished: the campaign for Fort Mill's Northern Bypass; no tax increase in a decade; a state-of-the-art fire station with donated land; new signs designating the bypass a truck route; new parking lots, removal of overhead wires, crosswalks and improved landscaping downtown, among other things.

"People were just ready for a change," he said.

Funderburk attributes his success to his message and hard work to make the message heard.

"It was always about proactive leadership and a new perspective," he said. "The platform basically was strategic planning, communication, economic development, especially in the downtown and on Tom Hall Street, and some transportation issues."

One of his first efforts, he said, will be to study what creative things other towns have done to revitalize downtowns, devise a plan and present that plan in grant applications. He also will push for stronger building code enforcement and closer communication with the York County Council.

"We need to see some long-range plans," he said. "We want to look at Fort Mill 15, 20 years from now."

Longtime incumbent Councilman Grady Ervin won his election by a margin similar to that by which Powers lost. He said he had no good answer for why he won and Powers lost.

"The younger generation doesn't see things the way ours does," he said. "I see that even with my own kids. People just were looking for change."

Huffmon considers most factors in the race beyond Powers' control.

"He may or may not have made Herculean efforts to manage growth," Huffmon said. "It was the perfect storm."