On Nov. 4 I felt the same way I did when Barak Obama won the election in 2008, like I
was present at an important moment in history. By a large margin Georgetown, founded in 1729, got its first black and Gullah mayor. Brandon Barber is a 7th generation Georgetonian whose forefathers came to work the rice plantations. He has served on the town council for 20 years and is a guidance counselor at the high school. Since Georgetown's population is about 60% black, it seems like it's about time!
There was plenty of drama in the race because the town is divided over the direction of its future. The major issue is whether Georgetown will grow as a green city of the future with clean industry and planned development of its valuable waterfront and harbor, or if it will attempt to return to its industrial hayday circa 1960-80.
The current mayor was green and ran for reelection in a primary against Barber, who is sort of rusty green, and the votes came in at a tie. A runoff between Mayor Scoville and Barber resulted in a win for Barber and he became the Democrat candidate for mayor.
Georgetown is built around a steel mill on the harbor that has sat idle now for over two years.
Last summer a study was done and beautiful plans drawn up to tear down the unsightly mill and develop the watefront with green ways, parks, shops, art, and attractive waterfront housing. At nearly the same time, a surprise bid came in from a British company, Liberty Steel, to purchase and reopen the mill.
It's not a pretty sight, it blocks the beautiful view of the harbor, and is a source of air and water pollution. After you cross the graceful bridge high over the Sampit River this is everyone's first view of the historic old town. Not pretty!
When the eyesore closed the best jobs in town disappeared and the town lost a third of its population. It has never recovered and the unemployment rate remains high. The steel workers' union still works tirelessly to bring back the days when the steel mill brought a good life to many families.
On the right is a white house still covered with "red dust" from the steel mill. Much of the town looked like this when the mill was running. Some of it still does.
The mill site is contaminated by the chemicals of 150 years of industry (it was an alcohol factory and lumber mill before it was a steel mill), and would cost unknown millions to clean up. The port has filled since the mill closed and $66 million is needed to dredge it. The town, population 9500, can afford neither.
A compromise of sorts has come to the table whereby Liberty Steel would buy the mill itself but property not directly occupied by the mill would be rezoned non-industrial, perhaps at a later time to be sold and developed as a greenway or whatever. Liberty Steel has promised to hire Georgetown residents first and to be a better neighbor to the town than the last owners. Their lawyers accepted the rezoning plan, a first reading was held and passed with two more readings to go.
With new mayor Barber in office in January, I had hoped this compromise is what the future of Georgetown would look like. However, two days after the election Barber changed his tune and voted against the rezoning plan.
When the union heard of the possibility of the mill reopening they commissioned and paid the artist of a faded old mural on one side of a mill building to repaint it.
I just hope that's not the only thing to come of the plans to revitalize Georgetown.
*The second photo from the top is from the South Strand News.