Local leaders: Economy is gaining steam

On the menu for scores of community leaders: optimism. Both in where their communities are and where they appear aimed to go.

More than 100 people attended the Tega Cay/Fort Mill State of the Community Breakfast on Aug. 7, where Mayors Danny Funderburk of Fort Mill and George Sheppard of Tega Cay, along with Fort Mill School District Superintendent Chuck Epps, highlighted achievements from the past year.

Funderburk celebrated recent accolades like his town’s inclusion among Family Circle magazine’s “10 Best Towns for Families” listing and multiple awards for the South Carolina Strawberry Festival. He also noted the top rating received on town financials, a balanced town budget and surplus in the general fund.

“We’re up to the challenge of managing our growth,” Funderburk said.

Though the economy will “continue to force difficult choices,” Funderburk also is optimistic that it’s “gaining steam.” There’s “rumor” of a hotel and large chain restaurant looking at the town, he said, and future projects could include a new courtroom and a police/fire substation in the Doby’s Bridge Road area.

The town continues work to expand Doby’s Bridge Park from one to three fields with other amenity additions, while a recent move of public works staff to a former armory building saved the town more than $1.5 million compared to a new building.

Sheppard touted new restaurants and businesses opening, more residential options and better service to Tega Cay residents following the move of city functions from a three bedroom house to the recently opened City Hall site.

“This change has allowed us to improve our services to our citizens, contractors and business owners,” he said.

A state health department approval for Wellmore, a 130,000-square-foot assisted living facility that Sheppard affectionately refers to as a “resident retention program,” could come this month.

“Our residents will no longer have to leave the city and friends they love due to health concerns,” he said.

A bagel shop and tire store should come this fall. And the Tega Cay Connector, linking Gold Hill Road and the Stonecrest development, should see right-of-way acquisition this fall followed by 12-18 months of construction. The road should be complete by the end of 2014, Sheppard said.

Epps told of two high schools earning Palmetto Gold awards for “closing the achievement gap” among students and more than $17 million in scholarships earned.

“It’s easier to educate the higher kids,” Epps said of the Palmetto Golds. The trick is in moving the middle kids to the top and the lower kids to the middle and then to the top.”

He shared a litany of school and individual awards and recognitions. In addition to the value that the district is providing through scholarships earned, Epps said, the district’s overall “excellent” report card and “A” grade on federal accountability standards show that the task of managing high standards and uncertain funding scenarios can be done, and can benefit the community as a whole.

“The school system is a major driver in people coming to our area,” Epps said. “The academic prowess of our district is critical.”

Leaders aren’t suggesting that there won’t be challenges. The school district is closing in on quadrupled enrollment in less than the past 20 years, along with the possibility of state changes in which students are allowed to attend what schools. Tega Cay continues to explore the balance of paid versus volunteer firefighters, a move already begun with hiring to supplement the hours volunteers can serve.

“We are making this transition because we need coverage 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week,” Sheppard said.

In Fort Mill, a decision will be made on continued funding school resources officers. The town now pays for half of those positions due to school district budget tightening.

He also said an ongoing debate and legal dispute over which hospital company should be allowed to build a Fort Mill facility makes it “unrealistic” to think anything will be operational within the next four years.

Yet, leaders said, the positives suggest that local communities are healthy, and that their futures are promising.

“We remain optimistic that even better days are ahead,” Funderburk said.

By Johm Marks, Staff Reporter with Fort Mill Times