Retiring Darlington Mayor sees bright future for city

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

As the Nov. 3 election ushers in new leaders for the City of Darlington, current Mayor Tony Watkins is preparing to close the book on twenty-six years of local government service, and he’s finishing out his third term as mayor on a high note. He says the three incoming city council members and new mayor will be charged with shepherding the city through a very exciting period of growth.

“I believe that we are on the verge of a big change, a big influx of business coming into Darlington,” says Watkins, citing the potential for several new ventures to spring up around the Walmart Supercenter currently under construction on South Main Street.

Darlington Mayor Tony Watkins is retiring from local government service after 26 years. Photo by Samantha Lyles

Darlington Mayor Tony Watkins is retiring from local government service after 26 years.
Photo by Samantha Lyles

“What we need to do is to engage with these folks so when they come here, they have a strong connection with the city – with the mayor, council, planner, city manager, everyone. We need to talk with new business in a diplomatic and welcoming way that lets them know they haven’t just opened a business here, they’re a part of the community,” says Watkins.
Mayor Watkins has a lot of time and energy vested in bringing Walmart, and all its attendant businesses, to Darlington. He spent several years courting developers – and enduring skepticism and derision from numerous doubters – to bring the project to fruition. He could hardly be blamed if he had run for a fourth term and taken a four-year victory lap, but he says it’s time to let new leaders step in and take the reins. He’ll be watching with great interest as Darlington moves ahead into a bright future.

Though he loves Darlington like a hometown, Watkins was actually born in Atlanta, Georgia, and lived there until the age of 8 when his family moved to South Carolina. Early on, his father was an executive in the trucking industry, but transitioned into business ownership after partnering with an associate to buy cinemas in Andrews, Manning, Mullins, Sullivan’s Island, and Darlington.

When Tony got out of the Marine Corps in 1968, he went to college and studied business, history, and journalism, and while he developed a good head for numbers, he says his heart belonged to the written word. He graduated as valedictorian of Francis Marion College’s first class in 1971, and his degree in English (with a history minor) was the first diploma that school ever formally presented. Doubling down on that honor, Watkins received his degree from famed novelist Professor James Dickey.

While still a college student, Tony met and married his wife Leah, and they’ve been a team ever since, weighing the pros and cons of everything from higher education to moving house to running for office. After nearly completing his master’s degree, Tony dismissed the idea of pursuing a career as a professor and joined the family business, Pearl Street Furniture.

“I bought my father out and bought my brother out, and Leah and I ran that business for 37 years, up until about two and a half years ago,” Tony says.

Pearl Street Furniture provided a steady income for the Watkins family to raise their children and spoil their grandchildren, and – as a bill pay hub – offered Tony the chance to interact with Darlington citizens from all over town. He listened to their concerns and came to understand that everyone from every walk of life basically wanted the same things for their city: safety, sanitation, and economic growth.

He first got involved with local government in the early 1980s by petitioning for zoning protections to prevent his single-family dwelling neighborhood from becoming overrun with apartment complexes, and that initial success spurred him to join Darlington’s effort to establish a Main Street organization, and eventually helped in the formation of Darlington Downtown Revitalization Association. These projects educated Watkins about the intricacies of governance and inspired him to get more involved.

“I started thinking that I might like to be on City Council. It seemed like an extension of being a business person, to try and help the city businesses grow and to represent the community,” says Tony who won his first council race and started serving in 1988.

His daily contact with citizens through Pearl Street Furniture always reminded him to keep commerce concerns in perspective, and to offer equal attention and service to all city residents.

“Business is important, but it shouldn’t be what politics is all about. You’re not going to stay in office if you’re just catering to a few people… the currency of politics is not dollars, it’s people,” says Watkins.

Serving on City Council sharpened Watkins’ teamwork instincts and leadership skills, as he learned that building a consensus among council members requires a delicate balance of respect, stubbornness, and compromise. Those lessons were put to work when he won the office of mayor and began his first term in 2004. Watkins says his goals had changed little since first joining council: he wanted to improve infrastructure throughout the city, strengthen public safety departments, and bring in new business.

One way Watkins feels Darlington may differ from other communities is the order by which the city prioritizes these goals. He says that safety should come first, that no one will want to move to a city unless they feel secure and believe they will be treated with respect by those men and women sworn to protect and serve them. Watkins says the City of Darlington has worked hard to establish police and fire departments that exemplify high levels of professional conduct.

“It’s important to set a tone for how our city institutions treat people, and that should be the same without regard for race, creed, religion, or gender – period,” says Watkins, noting that kind of courtesy should be mirrored across the board in public service.

“That sense of equality is the same with council; there should never be a time that someone complains of something wrong in the city and we ignore it. That should never be the case, whether it’s from citizens or council members,” he says.

Yet elected officials are still just people and conflicts are inevitable – Watkins says he has seen some doozies over the years. But when disharmony occurs at a council meeting, he believes it is crucial for mayor and council to comport themselves with dignity and civility, as they are charged with conducting the public’s business. To that end, he hopes that the incoming mayor and council members will all sign a pledge (as he and all current council members did) to observe rules of order and behave in a manner befitting their offices.

“What we have (in Darlington) is an agreement between every member on council that they will follow rules of decorum for council meetings,” says Watkins.

Regardless of who wins in the Nov. 3 elections, Watkins says he hopes the new mayor and council members will continue downtown development (like the Darlington Loft apartments and commercial space renovations completed during his tenure) and will continue the slow and steady progress to upgrade the city’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.

“We have to understand that we have to invest in that… and you can’t do it on the cheap. For people to live here and work here, you have to provide appropriate services. And that costs money and it takes time,” says Watkins.

These and other worries he leaves to his successors. Having sold Pearl Street Furniture and on the verge of leaving city government, Watkins now works part time at the Darlington Library – a career in literature at long last. He loves his new job and plans to spend more time with his family as his schedule loosens up and the pressure of leading the city ebbs away.

“Leah has a big smile on her face now,” Tony admits. “We came to the decision (not to run again) together, although she knew first that it was time. There is more to life than politics. Anyone in elected office needs to remember that they are just borrowing that position until it’s time for someone else to serve.”

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Author: Duane Childers

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