Meeting with Greenville County Council Members

Meeting with Greenville County Council Members

Some of the issues that are of interest to the philanthropic and nonprofit sector in Greenville County – workforce development, affordable housing, transportation, and growth – are ones best addressed in partnership with our local policy makers.

Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy joined with the Nonprofit Alliance to host its first session with elected officials – in this case, members of Greenville County Council – to hear what policy makers’ perspectives on these topics and what they foresee for our community and our work ahead. Diana Watson, co-anchor of FOX Carolina The Five O’Clock News and FOX Carolina News Tonight moderated the session, which was attended by 130 staff and board members of Greenville County funders and nonprofit organizations.

Each topic was introduced by a short video featuring representatives from local nonprofit organizations. In the workforce development video, Carlos Phillips, President and CEO of the Greenville Chamber, points out there are primarily two ways to fill the 10,000 job openings in Greenville County: getting more productivity out of the current workforce or expanding the workforce by getting people on the sidelines into employment. People on the sidelines usually face four key barriers: affordable housing, public transportation, child care, and criminal records. Dr. Jermaine Whirl, Vice President of Learning and Workforce Development at Greenville Technical College points out that the college can focus on curriculum and what’s taught in the classroom and the corporate facilities, but it takes a partnership with business who will allow employees to go back to school and even to support it financially with tuition reimbursements. It also requires policy makers to look at what else in the community makes training accessible (or inaccessible).

Transportation can make or break someone’s success, as David Bolton, Executive Director of Foothills
Family Resources shares from his perspective in Northern Greenville County. “Organizations like ours –
and they’re all over the county – are learning how to train and teach people, literally develop the habits
of professionalism. What we struggle with more is getting them (to work).” Transit director of Greenlink, Gary Shepard, has a vision for how the transit system can be a partner in making those physical connections with increased frequency of routes, hours of service, and geographic coverage, and he cites the costs to the public of a lack of transportation.

Affordable housing, defined as costing 30% of one’s monthly or annual income or less, has become an
issue in Greenville County in recent years as the housing market has heated up. Tony McDade, Executive
Director of United Ministries, recalls that when he arrived in Greenville County in 2003, there were
places for homeless families to move to but no jobs for them. Now that situation is flipped – “There are
just no housing units available…what we find with people in poverty who aspire to leave poverty is…they
pay half to all of their income just to sustain their families with a place to stay.” Susan McLarty, Executive Director of the Greenville Homeless Alliance says households need to make a minimum of $14.32 per hour to afford housing in the County, and with tourism as a major part of our economy, we are dependent on workers who are making much less than that.

Many of the commentators in the videos noted how connected these issues are to land use – that when
jobs are located far from where people live, it makes everything in life costlier and harder to access, and
that can and should be addressed through smart development.

Seven of Greenville County’s twelve council members addressed these topics in a panel discussion. Participants were Lynn Ballard, Joe Dill, Ennis Fant, Chairman Butch Kirven, Xanthene Norris, Fred Payne, and Liz Seman.

Xanthene Norris, who represents the west side of Greenville County, including West Greenville and Southernside, Judson and Sterling neighborhoods along with much of the Central Business District, noted that she has seen these issues at work in her district for years. She noted that she has long been an advocate for improved housing and transportation, and noted that through her career in education she saw the importance of both training and community supports in helping someone achieve success.

Joe Dill, representing the northernmost area of the county, said that his rural district also has issues with
transportation and connections to jobs, but the solutions may be different than in other parts of the county. Training on not just the technical aspects of work, but also professionalism, including how to dress, speak and behave in the workplace, is needed. He also noted opportunities to use creative solutions like church vans in solving mobility problems in his district.

Fred Payne, who serves Mauldin and areas around 185, is particularly interested in creative mobility solutions. He remarked that he’s not running for reelection so that he can focus on emerging modes of transportation, particularly automated, connected, electric, shared systems. He believes that these are especially useful to serve the first mile and last mile of a transit network and can be funded through public-private partnerships. He also noted that the biggest predictor of income as an adult is level of education, so it’s essential that the community works to support high school graduation rates.

Butch Kirven, serving much of Simpsonville and Fountain Inn, recognized that Gary Shepard and the
Greenlink team have a plan to improve transportation, and that mobility it doesn’t affect just the lowest
income strata – transit and improved transportation networks and infrastructure reduce congestion, improve movement of freight, and potentially boost economic development. However, he acknowledged, anything related to transportation is expensive, and as with all public policies, there are ends that we desire, but we have to be sure our means to get there can be met.

Ennis Fant, who represents southwest central Greenville County, including along Augusta Road, I-85 and
White Horse Road, said that we have to change the narrative on some of these topics to get larger buy in. He believes that the term public transit makes residents with cars think of it as a solution for poor people. But, he contends, it’s not a losing proposition – it’s an investment. He notes, “We can’t have a public hearing about rezoning without the room betting packed because people are worried about traffic.” Offering more mobility solutions can help with traffic, connections to jobs, and more.

Lynn Ballard has heard a great deal about zoning in his district, which is the southern end of the county
and is predominantly rural with the most undeveloped land of the twelve districts. He says that there’s a
great deal of affordable land to use for less expensive housing, but because of their distance from jobs and services, such homes could become less affordable for those residents who would have higher transportation costs. Residents in his district have expressed to him how they value the rural character of the area, and many wish for it to remain so – as such, some have become more interested in how zoning can help preserve these pastoral lands. Lynn works with residents, business, and the county to balance the rights of property owners, the interests of area residents, and the way his single district fits within the larger county.

Joe Dill pointed out that Greenville County has only single member districts, so each council member is
elected by only the voters who live in their specific geographic area. Ennis Fant highlighted how this
makes County Council a microcosm of the county’s residents, including members who are conservative
and progressive, who are lifelong residents and newcomers, and who have varying perspectives on the
County’s role in the issues discussed.

But all panelists agreed that the issues of workforce development, housing, transportation, and growth
are ones that need a cross-sector partnership. Liz Seman, who represents a district that is primarily in the City of Greenville and a portion of Mauldin, has the unique perspective of serving in local government but also working in higher education and previously with Meals on Wheels, Hands on Greenville, and American Red Cross. She encouraged those present to get involved in local government. “Attend council meetings. Be present to demonstrate your interest. Talk about the issues and your expertise,” she advised. In this way, council members can better understand what nonprofits and funders can do, and the nonprofit sector can better understand what council members and local government can do, and both can collaborate on solutions to strengthen the community.

Katy Smith, facilitator of Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy, concluded the session by encouraging attendees to heed Councilwoman Seman’s advice: call and write your council members, invite them to visit you or to have coffee, but most importantly, attend council meetings and get involved.

All council members’ contact information along with meeting schedules, agendas, and minutes can be found on the Greenville County Council website.

Growth, slated to be a specific topic of discussion, will be a focus of the July 9 th regular GPP meeting.