County proud of ‘grassroots’ approach this time around

Before the 2003 Pennies for Progress referendum was placed in front of voters, a Clover woman approached Jerry Helms and the Pennies for Progress Commission with a problem area she felt needed to be addressed.

Citing safety concerns over a Hwy. 321 and Ridge Road intersection, the commission did its due diligence and determined that she was correct and subsequently added the intersection to the list of 2003 projects. For Helms, this was the inspiration for the 2011 referendum being held on Aug. 2, and a telling example of the direction that the program will be going in the future – if voters renew it.

“The woman who came to us was in the back of my mind when we began compiling our vision for the 2011 referendum,” said Helms, who has been the chairman of the Pennies for Progress Commission since 1997, the year the first referendum was narrowly passed.

“We realized it was time to simply go ask folks what they would like to see happen, and when it comes to issues like this, who knows what needs the most work more than the community?”

Over an 18-month period which began in 2009, the Pennies for Progress Commission held approximately 14 open meetings during which citizens from all over York County could offer their take on the projects that would receive a portion of the $161 million slated for the 2011 program. Officials say the transparency of this year’s project agenda is a rapid departure from when the program was first introduced, in which the commission and York County Council had 30 days to decide which projects would be green lit prior to the 1997 referendum.

In 2003, the program was opened for more for public opinion, allowing voters a chance to see the project list before the referendum. But this year, the project list for each county, which is ranked from No. 1 to No. 4 based on top priority, was completely decided by voters.

Project Manager Phil Leazer said the decision stemmed from 14 years of mistakes and lessons learned, and he believes that the program has finally become representative of what voters truly want.

“We were the first county in South Carolina to attempt something this ambitious, and it reflected in the decisions and mistakes we made in the past,” Leazer said. “But what will be available to vote on come Aug. 2 is really a wish list of what citizens that live here now want. We want to use their input to promote smart development, and support the growth that is occurring and will continue to come to York County.”

The grassroots approach to the 2011 Pennies for Progress program extends into the marketing and promotional realm as well. Because the York County Council can’t use any project funding or government influence to promote the program, a citizens committee, Citizens for Safer and Better Roads, was formed. It concentrates solely on informing the public of the upcoming referendum.

Having so far received $38,000 worth of donations from state and federal grants, as well as private donations, the committee has utilized the money to advertise Pennies for Progress in a variety of outlets. A CN2 commercial airs regularly and the group itself has adopted several different approaches such as road signs, flyer distribution, cold calling and spreading the message via door to door networking.

“If you think about it, this entire effort has been grassroots from the beginning in terms of how something small ballooned into big changes for the community,” said Bobby Meeks, co-chairman of Citizens for Safer and Better Roads.

“And in retrospect, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the benefits of the program despite some lingering, and understandable, frustration. Our goal is simply to approach people and make them aware of the positive impact of the projects completed and those yet to come.”

But as support for the program has swelled with each referendum – the first program passed in 1997 by a 1 percent margin, while the 2003 referendum was approved in convincing fashion – there are still many who oppose the program.

Chuck Ledford and his wife Beverly have already filled out absentee ballots voting against the referendum, citing the program’s emphasis on building new infrastructure through areas of future development instead of improving existing roads and glaring sectors of overdevelopment.

Ledford said he also believes that the No. 1 project on the Fort Mill priority list, a five-lane widening of Hwy. 160 West to the North Carolina state line, will only serve to “put a band aid on a terminal gunshot wound” pertaining to new housing developments slated for completion on Zoar Road in the future.

“Go to the intersection of Gold Hill Road and 160 at rush hour and tell me what you see,” said Ledford, who currently lives in Carowoods off Gold Hill Road.

In addition to the planned projects on the horizon, Ledford is also upset with the York County sales tax, set to increase to 9 percent if the proposal passes. The South Carolina state sales tax currently sits at 6 percent.

“That intersection can’t handle the development surrounding it as is, and you mean to tell me that a four lane expansion will alleviate that as housing developments continue to be built? This is just one example, and it feels to me that York County is merely throwing us a bone. They are taking our money and squandering it on this program in my opinion.”

In addition to his aforementioned concerns, Ledford believes that much of the infrastructure put in place wasn’t necessary, citing a four-lane expansion stretching from Hwy. 274 near Newport to Hwy. 49 that “rarely sees traffic,” Ledford said.

But Leazer disagrees with Ledford’s proclamations, citing the growth near Hwy. 274 circa 1996 as “among the fastest growing regions in the county.” And according to Leazer, that particular stretch of road, along with every other Pennies for Progress project, is essential and reflected as such by the feedback he’s received.

“From the information we’ve gotten, Tega Cay and Fort Mill residents don’t just want the 160 lane extension, they deemed it mandatory,” Leazer said. “We don’t believe that there is a single project that promotes unwanted or unhealthy growth in Fort Mill or anywhere else in York County. Every road done and to be done on our list is a major collector road that will ease the strain for the commuting public.”

And while Helms concurs, he also understands the uncertainty built in the minds of many a longtime resident due to the problems the program has experienced in the past. Yet, as Aug. 2 looms on the horizon, Helms believes that the program has finally and completely become representative of “the people.”

“I always tell people that we didn’t have a crystal ball when the program first went into effect,” Helms said.

“The economy collapsed, we over and underestimated costs, all because we didn’t quite know what we were doing since we the first people who attempted such an ambitious program. But with the people of York County speaking up and making their voice heard on what they want out of Pennies for Progress, it will virtually guarantee its success going forward.”

By Jason Chisari, Staff Reporter with Fort Mill Times