In ‘digital meeting,’ city wraps up recreation-land purchase
By Bobby Bryant
In its first “digital meeting,” Darlington City Council last week completed the purchase of $600,000 worth of land that will be the basis for a recreation complex near Darlington Raceway.
Forced to meet entirely by video because of coronavirus concerns, council on April 7 took its final vote on buying the 116 acres off Harry Byrd Highway. That final OK had originally been set for council’s March 3 meeting, but last-minute legal issues led council to postpone the vote.
Those issues were never publicly discussed, but one official described them as mostly a matter of “dot(ting) the I’s and cross(ing) the T’s” on the deal. Council’s unanimous vote last week wraps up the purchase, although the city is still working with adjacent landowners to let the city annex a thin strip of land that would serve as a “bridge,” bringing the recreation property into the city limits.
Darlington doesn’t have to annex the land to purchase it, but City Council members clearly want the property inside city limits. During last week’s all-digital council meeting, broadcast live on the city’s Facebook page, councilwoman Sheila Baccus asked, “Who has the authority to police the property?”
City Public Safety Director Kelvin Washington told her that the Sheriff’s Department would have that authority, at least for now. City police could check on the land, but they’d have no arrest powers there until or unless the city succeeds in annexing the property.
Council has usually referred to the 116 acres as “ballfield purchase” or “ballfield land,” and new baseball and softball fields will be part of the project. But it’s also the foundation for a recreation complex that can grow into anything the city is able to finance. During the April 7 “digital” council meeting, Mayor Curtis Boyd alluded to the possibility of building a hotel there.
In other business during last week’s session, council was told that the Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce is still planning to hold its annual Freedom Fest celebration in July, but that the chamber has a couple of contingency plans if the coronavirus crisis is still locking down the state and nation into midsummer.
When the virus pandemic is over, council was told, the chamber plans a “giant ribbon-cutting” to celebrate the “reopening” of Darlington businesses and a return to something like normal life.
Boyd asked Washington if he could elaborate on Gov. Henry McMaster’s latest executive order that essentially says S.C. residents should either be at home or at work now, except for running crucial errands like buying groceries or picking up prescriptions.
“He’s saying stay home, but he also offered a couple of instances where it would be OK for people to be out,” Washington said. “Our (officers) have been told to encourage people to go home. … We’re encouraging people to stay home as much as possible.”
Washington also said the city has been discouraging officers and firefighters “from having too much personal contact” with people they encounter on calls. “Some of the other cities across the country … this virus has broken out in some of the (police) departments, and it has created havoc. We definitely don’t want anything like that here.”
Medical-grade face masks have been handed out to law-enforcement officers, and they are free to use the masks “at their discretion,” Washington said. “But in instances where they are transporting people, whether it be to jail or some other reason, they are required to wear those N95 masks because of the close, confining space of a vehicle.”
Washington said he had “other concerns” with “what’s going on, with people not working” because of massive job losses. Washington said he preferred to discuss that with council in private, either in executive session or one on one with members.
Also last week, City Council voted to accept a federal grant giving the city $50,000 for three new patrol cars and gave initial approval to economic-development incentives for a Holt Brothers barbeque restaurant being built at the former site of the Huddle House restaurant on South Main Street. City planning director Lisa Chalian-Rock said that the Holt Brothers project represents a $150,000 capital investment and that it’s expected to employ 25 people, with preference given to Darlington County residents.
Council also OK’d a resolution linked to Georgia-Pacific’s plans for investing $145 million to expand and modernize its 500-employee Dixie plant in Darlington. The resolution “grant(s) consent to the inclusion of certain property within the Joint County Industrial Park of Darlington and Lee Counties,” and ties in with similar action by County Council.
“This is the thing we’ve been waiting for,” City Manager Howard Garland told council, referring to the Dixie expansion project. “ … All we’re doing … is adopting what the county passed last night. Once we get past this and we get away from the non-disclosure agreement we signed with Georgia-Pacific, we can talk about in executive session what this means financially for the city of Darlington, which is quite a windfall.”