Monday, January 25, 2010

All Sembler questions will be answered next week, but so far, so good

Bluffton Today

After a tough week in Columbia, it is a relief to have some good news for our area. The Beaufort-Jasper- Hampton Comprehensive Health Services Center in Ridgeland is the beneficiary of a lot of hard work that your representative and your delegation put in last year on the state facilities improvement program.

We brought home (I like to call it “repatriating”) more than 8 million of your dollars to refit this highly and efficiently utilized facility. This will broaden the community health outreach to some of our most vulnerable citizens, especially in these tough times. In addition, the return on the investment of these dollars is huge in economic terms as well as the quality of life of those served.

The repatriation of these dollars is one of the reasons I worked so diligently to be assigned to the Ways and Means Committee. Our needs across the board are receiving a much fairer hearing since this assignment.

I met last week with my friend, Jerry Stewart, the Sun City representative on the Beaufort County Council. We both have been hearing a great deal from you on the Sembler matter. Being in the development business, I am more than passing familiar with what separates the outfits we want to work in our neighborhoods, and those that we might want to discourage.

In the Lowcountry, the first thing I look for is a solid stormwater management plan. What I try to encourage is that projects keep all their runoff on their site. When they tell me that’s impossible, it’s a red flag. I know it to be possible, because that is what we did at the Promenade, my last project in Old Town Bluffton.

I asked for and received the Sembler stormwater plan last week and have been going over it, as well as sharing it with folks whose opinions I value in these things. So far, I’m pretty impressed. They have seen the latest Colleton-Okatie studies and are making a good effort to respect the sanctity of this natural treasure.

Incidentally, I also requested the stormwater plan for the redo of the Tanger outlet off U.S. 278 in Bluffton. So far, they have not made it available, but hope to in the near future. You may remember there were some problems with the original Tanger construction relative to Sawmill Creek, which is a tributary of the Colleton-Okatie. Beaufort County, however, currently has a much more effective oversight than when the original outlet was built.

In truth, my decision on the incentive package for Sembler will depend a great deal on how they present it to County Council this week. Whether Chairman Newton and his council colleagues are either more or less adamantly opposed to the project after the presentation will certainly make a difference to me. In the meantime, I plan to make a visit (on my own dime) to one of the Sembler flagship properties in Orlando this weekend. Seeing what they have done there will help me understand what they can potentially do here. One way or other, next Monday in this space you will hear something definitive from me.

One aspect of the extended conversations I have had with numerous Sembler officials has to do with a potential relationship between the developer and the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation folks. Providing employment opportunities for workers helped by the state rehab effort is certainly not going to turn the debate, but it may give us an idea of whom we are dealing with.

Monday, January 11, 2010

He says ... The future of Bluffton’s health care is nearly here

Bluffton Today

We had a total of just under 375 constituent contacts for last week, which is right about average for us these days.

The phones are up and working, thanks to some good work by our friends at Hargray. There was apparently some confusion as to why we were down for those several days. It was not due to any deficiencies in the service or the system provided by Hargray Communications. Our problems were due entirely to chaos and confusion brought about by moving our office and all the accumulated stuff that is now necessary to the functioning of a modern legislative operation. I regret any misunderstanding that might have been caused by comments made in this column.

Constant readers know that I am not shy about candid assessments of the performance of companies, other politicians or opinion leaders whose work, in my view, falls short of the mark. I also try to give credit where credit is due.

Speaking of local business, there is a new skilled nursing facility about to open in Bluffton on S.C. 170 just south of Sun City. The facility is built and run by NHC Healthcare and according to regional VP Sonny Kinney, it will provide short-term physical rehabilitation or extended care for physical or cognitive difficulties for 120 patients in its current facility. They anticipate hiring between 130 and 140 folks, most from the Bluffton area. Future plans for their campus call for construction of an assisted-living facility and an inpatient hospice, as well as a fourth unit to complement and complete the current installation.

The community open house for this new skilled nursing facility is set for this Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. and the ribbon cutting to take place around 5. With the demographics of District 118 leaning somewhat toward the older side, I am pleased to have this new business in our neighborhood, not to mention the 100-plus jobs. Try to make it out for the event and introduce yourself to administrator Wade Taylor and take a look at the future of Bluffton health care.

Well, friends, it’s showtime tomorrow in Columbia with the convening of the current session of the General Assembly. The offseason has been extremely busy for me as well as other members of your Beaufort County delegation. Aside from the challenges presented by the budget and the economy, we are determined to achieve funding equity for our local schools, close the loopholes in our environmental protections, and at least make a good beginning on the monumental task of reforming the state’s finances.

In fact, we have a lengthy list of things that need to be addressed and acted upon. This is not just an agenda that I made up, or we came up with in the Coastal Caucus, or the party caucus — it is your agenda. Those 300 to 400 constituent contacts per week that we have week in and week out all year are where this agenda comes from. You speak, I listen, and your voice is heard in Columbia. The higher your representative goes up the seniority ladder and the more coherent and organized your delegation, the loader your voice.

That’s why they call it the House of Representatives.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Commercial developers must do more than talk good games

Bluffton Today

I want to again apologize for the inconvenience many of you have experienced in making phone contact with us over the holidays. Although our friends at Hargray have been putting in some overtime hours, which we appreciate, the phones have not been flawless. Things are pretty much OK now so in the week left before session begins, please give it another try if you have things to discuss.

This is my eighth year in the General Assembly and looks to be by far the most challenging, simply because the dollars to keep the state functioning properly are not available. As a member of Ways and Means, much of the heavy lifting of cutbacks and retrenchment will fall to me. If there is any bright side to this downturn, it may be that my calls for reform of the tax system may find a few more sympathetic ears this session. For our many laid-off workers or those having to do with diminished or absent state support, that is pretty thin gruel.

Constant readers of this column know that the two foundational supports of my political efforts are JOBS and ENVIRONMENT.

Jobs in our state are mostly related in one way or another to a clean and green environment. Environmental disasters, conversely, are proven job-killers. What I strive for is an economy that creates jobs by leveraging the benefits of a great environment. It’s a simple formula for building and maintaining a community where quality of life is a driving feature of the economy. Smart people with good companies want to move here and be a part of what we currently enjoy.
I am challenged and somewhat puzzled by the huge project under development at the corner of highways 170 and 278. The Sembler project will undoubtedly create a number of jobs but the location of the shopping center near the headwaters of the fragile Okatie River is a cause of great concern.

There is also the matter of the state financial incentives requested by the Sembler Co.
There is conversation around the General Assembly questioning the rationale for those incentives, as well as some of the information used to justify them. I have had good conversations with both environmental folks and jobs folks. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time on this matter, including talks with Sembler personnel all the way up the food chain.
They talk a good game but here is the bottom line: Can they prove to me, to Beaufort County, to the Coastal Conservation League and to Nancy Schilling and Friends of the Rivers that post-development runoff from their project will be the same or less than pre-development runoff? The latest and most definitive study (TMDL) of the Okatie River requires at least that commitment.

I know the engineering exists to make this happen, because that’s what we did at the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton. In fact, our underground storage system treats and retains not only our stormwater, but also runoff from surrounding areas.
I’ll keep you posted on this as information becomes available.

Next week’s column will come out the day before the session begins. You can expect a full rundown of what your representative and your delegation are planning. Until then, I wish you a good and prosperous year, and look forward to serving you with the continued effectiveness and commitment you deserve.