Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week’s column was composed before the big news out of Columbia concerning the replacement for retiring Senator Jim DeMint. Our hearty congratulations go to our Congressman Tim Scott, soon to be Senator Tim Scott. This is particularly good news for those of us in the Lowcountry, as the presumptive senator has excellent ties to Beaufort County, having attended numerous functions in Bluffton and Hilton Head. He has also been the weekend houseguest, several times, of our newest Representative Weston Newton and his lovely wife, Rose. Politically speaking, things just keep getting better for this region, as well as our state.

Traditionally, the week between Christmas and the New Year has been busy and productive for the merchants of Bluffton. My conversations with the Promenade business owners confirm they expect the upcoming week to be at least as profitable as those leading up to Christmas. You know, the pressure is off. Most of our out-of-town guests have departed and it’s time to redeem some of those gift cards we received. It might be time for some spa services, followed by a great dinner and a quiet stroll around the Old Town.

One of the young people making a mark in the Bluffton business community is my friend, Josh Cook. Josh is the owner of The Corner Perk. He is a purveyor of fine coffee and a variety of food items. Josh is also a fellow with a lot of good ideas that benefit, not only his group of loyal customers, but the Bluffton community at large as well. You may be familiar with his creative “Buy Local” campaign and his very interesting “Love Bluffton” posters that seem to be everywhere. The next time you find yourself at the corner of Burnt Church Road and Bruin Road, drop in at the Corner Perk, get a coffee and a sandwich and have a chat with this outgoing young man. You will leave more optimistic about the future of our town and maybe even less pessimistic about the prospects for our upcoming generation.

In somewhat the same vein, I have been talking quite a bit with my friend, Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart. Jerry is anxious to engage with our Department of Commerce with some ideas about job creation and economic development. Jerry was the point of the spear involving County Council’s recent efforts to partner with other jurisdictions in the region in attracting businesses and light industries to the area. Our communication has always been excellent, and I look forward to working with Jerry and County Council as we revive not only our port project but other economic drivers as well.

I attended a good meeting last week with our state and local tourism experts. They think 2013 is going to be a banner year for the visitor economy in our region. Not only is the Heritage on stable financial and sponsorship footing, but also the remnants of the Gulf oil spill are still making us relatively more attractive than some of our traditional competitors. Also, the devastation in New Jersey, New York and New England will likely enhance our tourism prospects. While I have no wish to benefit from the misfortunes of others, those folks have got to have some place to go for vacation, and South Carolina, particularly Lowcountry South Carolina, has everything a visitor might desire.

One more time—Don’t drink and drive. Please have a designated driver and take care of yourself and your friends. Next year is going to be a great one—don’t miss it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From The House

Bluffton Today

Today, as always, is a great day in Bluffton. The traffic I see in the old town is heavy but not overwhelming. I try to walk around over my lunch break and chat with folks I don’t recognize. Candidly, I guess I’m interviewing people with an eye toward a little market research. What I hear is never startling or astonishing—it’s almost the same every time. If people are visiting, they are always pleasantly surprised by the variety of shops and restaurants. If they have just moved here, often they have made a run at the big boxes and just gotten tired of the crowds and the sameness, the artificial urgency and the impersonal service. What they experience here is the exact opposite. Most of our businesses are sole proprietorships and the people behind the counters are interested in not only selling merchandise, but also making sure the shopper has a good experience which will likely repeat itself.

Let me follow up just briefly on last week’s comment about the new location for Jim Buser’s business, Sports Addiction. We had quite a few people, mostly Sun City Cyclers, call in about the new store in the Food Lion shopping center by Sun City. The comments were good and most appreciated the heads up on the new place. Both the good weather and Jimbo’s great mechanics keep those bikes on the road.

I know I beat the “Shop Local” drum hard and often, but it wouldn’t matter how pleasant a visit to old town was, if the shops, galleries and restaurants did not do good business. While the docents at the Heyward House and the Church of the Cross are volunteers, those of us that have a more commercial interest may seem like docents sometimes, but without paying customers, our great little community would not be nearly as interesting.

Today is also a special day for a more personal reason for me. It is my beautiful wife Mary’s birthday. She is the center of my personal universe and I don’t have nearly enough opportunities to demonstrate my gratitude and my husbandly regard. Consequently, I try to make it a special time and remind her that she is truly one-of-a-kind. All her birthdays are very important but this one is something of a milestone. All I can say is she is over thirty, but not by much. People have always teased me a bit for being something of a cradle robber when we are together in public. In truth, it has always been a mystery to me how she can be so elegant and so gracefully put together, regardless of the event, be it a formal venue or an oyster roast at the Toomer’s.

It has been kind of a slow week as far as constituent contacts, with only 272 here at the office, including calls, emails, and walk-ins. I image it will probably remain slow for the next week or so, then pick up considerably right before we go back into session. Also, I want to remind you we will be closed a half day for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas and New Years Day. Regardless, we do check email and calls, and try to get back to folks the same day, if at all possible.

Finally, at the risk of seeming to be a nag, please be responsible about your holiday celebrations. Our local law enforcement personnel are focusing their efforts on alcohol violations until after the first of the year, for which I am grateful. Getting a DUI is bad, but far, far from the worst things that might happen if you don’t have a designated driver.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

With the blockbuster announcement recently by our retiring Senator Jim DeMint, I immediately began receiving call after call from folks claiming to wonder if I was on the short list for appointment to the soon-to-be-vacant seat. To pre-empt any more wonderment as to my status, here is the official response: With regard to the Senate seat in question, if I’m called, I will not pick up. If appointed, I will not serve. End of story.

Seriously, folks, the one thing you can say about South Carolina politics is it’s never boring. Sometimes it’s bizarre and always provokes a fair amount of head scratching, but never boring. In truth, with the new configuration of the Beaufort/Jasper delegation, especially after the announcement of committee assignments, I am pretty excited about the upcoming session. We have a strong team with a lot of experience, and thanks to redistricting, we include a couple of new players looking to make a big difference right away.

In particular, Rep. Shannon Erickson returns to Labor, Commerce and Industry (LCI) but moved up to a subcommittee chair. Rep. Andy Patrick moved up in Education and Public Works. Long-serving member Rep. Bill Bowers has moved up in LCI and assumed a subcommittee chair. The surprise (that surprised no one) was the appointment of freshman Rep. Weston Newton to Judiciary, usually reserved for members with at least two or three years of service. The plum appointment speaks to the high expectations placed on the shoulders of my friend Weston after his many years as chairman of Beaufort County Council and especially to his long list of achievements in service to the home folks.

As we get ready for the new session, your delegation is already in mid-season form after our organizational meetings. Even our desks in the House chamber are situated so that we can readily confer on any matters that may arise. You can expect to hear from me on the details of our current efforts to bring fairness to education funding, not only K-12, but as was noted last week, in the fiscal treatment of our local post-secondary offerings as well. You will also learn more about the healthcare exchanges that are part of the Affordable Healthcare Act, especially as we get our cost calculations refined. Of course, your delegation is always seeking to raise the banner for economic development in our area.

In that vein, we recently saw the opening of a new big-box store in Greater Bluffton, as Dick’s Sporting Goods finally rolled out in the Target Shopping Center. There was some concern that local stores would feel the pinch of the new store. What happens is that weaker businesses may indeed be hurt, but stronger outfits with solid management simply adjust, refine their business models and carry on. A great example of this forward-looking strategy comes from my friend Jim Buser, who many of you know as the owner of Sports Addiction. Jim and his crew are now located in the Food Lion shopping center out by Sun City. Reports from a number of Sun City Cyclers are that the new store is great, with more bikes and gear, more fitness equipment, and the same great service you expect from a local firm with deep roots in the community.

Finally, we are at that time of year when Christmas parties and New Year’s celebrations are coming up. Please be smart about your safety and the safety of your friends. I urge you to have a designated driver. I want everyone to have a good time but to be moderate in the consumption of adult beverages. Unwise celebration can have very bad outcomes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Many of you newcomers to the Bluffton, Hilton Head, Sun City and Beaufort areas got a pretty good introduction this past weekend to what a real, functional and lively community looks and feels like. Friday afternoon and evening, the Old Town Merchant’s Society put on another of their outstanding events with their “Light Up the Night” promotion. Santa made an appearance at the Promenade, along with a ton of children, with parents and grandparents in tow. The Holly Jolly Trolley ferried shoppers and sightseers around town, which was illuminated by hundreds of luminaries lining the sidewalks. The shops and restaurants were hopping and big fun was happening.

Another success for Merchant’s President Rodney Vaughn, Events Chairperson Lisa Cappano, and information guru Diane Dean. Good Job

Saturday, of course, was the much-anticipated Bluffton Christmas Parade. If you were there, you were among 10,000 or more revelers-- complete with families, friends, visitors and fun-seekers of all stripes. From my spot in the procession, it looked like a huge collection of family reunions, often ten deep along the parade route. For a couple of hours, we were all simply neighbors sharing a community spectacle of friendship and unity. For me, it is always a powerful antidote to the division and strife we confront daily in our various media. I enjoy the precision of the military bands, the almost precision of the Junior ROTC units, the civic organizations, and yes, even the local politicians. For a couple of hours, the focus is on what we all share in common, the things that bind us together, rather than those things that too often divide us.

I hope you enjoyed the parade as much as Mary and I. I hope you also stayed around for a while and availed yourself of some of the fine food and libation available in Old Town Bluffton. Perhaps you found some special things for loved ones among the diverse bounty of our shops and galleries. Even if you left empty-handed, I know you left with a good feeling for our lovely part of the Lowcountry.

As we approach the second Tuesday of the New Year and the reconvening of the General Assembly, those of us in leadership are already deep in planning sessions. As a senior member of Ways and Means Committee and subcommittee chairman, your representative is in the thick of it. This week, I met with representatives of Clemson and Dr. Harris Pastides, President of USC. Along with our usual conversations about wish lists and enrollment trends, there is a new topic on the table: parity. While the legislature always does what it can for higher education, this legislator is not altogether happy with the fact that our local four-year, degree-granting institution, University of South Carolina-Beaufort, is perennially at the bottom of per student support from the home office. I have met with my friends USCB Chancellor Jane Upshaw and Vice-Chancellor Lynn McGee on this matter and the status quo is unacceptable. Our local scholars are no less deserving than those attending other state colleges and universities.

In truth, we have worked this issue from the K-12 side for years, and only as our delegation has become more senior and more coherent, have we begun to have success in bringing our state funding to parity with other regions. With the addition of Weston Newton to our delegation, I am confident we can begin to bring additional attention and additional dollars to lift us to equal status in the higher education community. In an ideal world, fairness would not depend solely on political calculus. Sadly, our world is still a click or two south of ideal.