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Walmart: Swing vote expected from contested council district

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When Georgetown County Council denied a rezoning request for a Lowe’s Home Improvement store at Pawleys Island in 2005, the swing vote in the 4-3 decision came from the council member from District 5. With council now facing a request to allow construction of a 119,500-square-foot store for what members say will be a Walmart, eyes are again focused on the district that runs along the county’s northwestern border.

There’s a three-way race for the district, and candidates say they aren’t hearing much about big-box stores in Andrews, Pleasant Hill, Potato Bed Ferry or the other precincts, but they are hearing about jobs and taxes.

“My people are not as affected as are others,” said Austin Beard, the Republican incumbent who is running for a second term. “They still have a stake in the decision and where we go.”

Also on the ballot are Ben Dunn and C.C. “Bubba” Grimes III, petition candidates who were caught up in a wave of flawed filings around the state this spring. Dunn, a former deputy coroner and magistrate, filed as a Democrat. Grimes, a real estate broker, filed as a Republican. Although they won’t benefit from straight-ticket votes, there are other advantages.

“I’m hoping to split them and, as the Bible says, ‘pick up the fragments,’ ” Dunn said.

Grimes said he’s a fiscal conservative and thinks he will benefit from Beard’s vote to put a capital sales tax on the November ballot.

“Austin is far from conservative. He’s pro-tax and pro-spending,” Grimes said.

Beard said it was an issue that needed to go before the public for a vote. “It’s got merit, in my opinion, both ways,” he said.

Dunn said fire protection that’s part of the almost $40 million worth of projects is needed in the district, but is concerned about taking money “from the pockets of senior citizens” to pay for it.

Grimes agrees with the need for fire protection, but questions park projects that are part of the proposal.

“What I hear over and over again is this thing of ‘wants versus needs,’ ” he said.

One issue Grimes has staked out is the repeal of the county’s impact fee that was created to fund capital improvements. Council members have talked about eliminating the fee if the capital sales tax is approved because the tax will fund those improvements.

“I can’t commit, but there’s been some discussion,” Beard said.

“I’ve witnessed first hand what a crippling effect it’s had,” Grimes said. “From the first-time homebuyer right on up.”

Sunbelt Ventures, which wants to redevelop Pawleys Island Plaza to include a big-box store, highlighted the $140,000 in impact fees the project will pay. It also included a sales estimate of $45 million, which would add 8 percent to the revenue the county estimates it would get from the capital sales tax.

Those numbers, plus Sunbelt’s push to get the project on the agenda before the election, have opponents of the Walmart questioning the timing of the rezoning request.

“I’m not a political person,” said SueAnn Crawford, who chairs the Don’t Box the Neck committee, but she’s heard talk about the impact of the District 5 election on the rezoning.

“I’m sure politically it would be best to delay it until after the election,” she said.

Beard, like other council members, got a look at the proposal from Sunbelt partners and their engineer. “Just from aesthetics, I thought it looked nice,” he said.

But he said he won’t make a decision until after the Planning Commission makes its recommendation.

“I don’t want to give anyone any indication one way or another,” he said. “There’s a world of things that need to be taken into consideration.”

Although he hasn’t heard from voters, Dunn said he is aware of the issue. “I’ve got some dear friends over there” on Waccamaw Neck, he said.

“I vote my conscience,” he said. “If I’m elected I will look out for them.”

Grimes, who owns and manages shopping centers, said the county needs to be business-friendly. But he isn’t sure that means approving a Walmart store that will pose a threat to small business.

“The issue doesn’t have a lot to do with my district,” he said. “It’s going to depend largely on what the people want.”

He was in the real estate business at Pawleys Island for many years and said he understands the concerns.

Opponents of the Walmart project would like to see the process slowed down, if only to provide more time to organize. Crawford points out that Sunbelt began talking with county officials over a year ago.

And that’s something that concerns Grimes. “There’s almost covert stuff going on,” he said.

He calls Beard the “yes man” for Sel Hemingway, the county administrator.

In the 2005 vote against Lowe’s, it was Hemingway who held the District 5 seat.

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