Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 17 | Engaging hearts and minds

A cacophony of competing interests or a collective dream?

May 17, 2007 

‘I believe South Carolina can still be a shining example and can lead the way once again — not just out of the Union.’

PHOTO BY GERRY MELENDEZ

Armed by moral certitude, sure this particular battle is the key battle, sure the future is at stake: Such convictions have the makings of a Hundred Years' War.

There is another way, four steps that require an engagement of hearts and minds.

First, acknowledge geographic limits exist no matter what, whether the desire is to save a swamp or build a bridge.

Seventy percent of the land Santee Cooper owns is undeveloped — and most must stay that way. Some is swamp and can't be built upon. Some is forest and under forest management. Some is devoted to wildlife refuges.

Besides, Santee Cooper is a public utility licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The license includes restrictions on land use, how much is residential or commercial. The license includes obligations to provide public use but also to protect wildlife and natural areas.

"We constantly have to weigh the consequences of economic development," says David L. Evans, who manages Santee Cooper property.

"That's difficult to do, to have ‘smart growth.' You have these competing interests. Under any heading are dozens of subplots."

Second, acknowledge that these subplots, with all their many characters, could be collected into one big question: What would a South Carolina that cherishes all — water, trees, sturgeon, woodpeckers, farmers, boaters, investors, commuters — look like?

So far, the story has been one of particular wants and needs, a cacophony of competing interests, rather than a collective dream.

The Shirers want family farming.

The Bodricks want local jobs.

The budget-conscious want a balance between cost and benefit.

The hunters and fishers want more ducks, more fish.

The environmentalists want natural havens.

Jim Clyburn wants water and roads, retirees and golf courses, nature and ecotourism, and he wants this to benefit those left out before. He wants a healthier, wealthier congressional district — with a new bridge.

Third, acknowledge that, as always, the unfinished conversation about race stands in the way.

Debby Warren tries to find a middle ground, working with rural communities with a history of racism and poverty. As executive director of the Southern Rural Development Initiative, she believes protecting the environment and developing a sustainable economy are compatible.

After all, she notes, sometimes we forget the obvious, the constant interaction between environment and humankind. What's good for one can be good for the other.

Early on, her Raleigh-based organization commented on the bridge clash this way: "The history of development in the South suggests that bridges and roads alone will not preserve and enhance black-owned land." It also criticized environmentalists' inexperience, even "unwillingness," in dealing with issues of poverty and race, explaining this "makes them suspect in the eyes of African-Americans."

Warren's organization puts its research — a database on federal funds, education on public policy — to work in poor, rural areas, including Allendale and Marlboro counties.

But Wilbur Cave, executive director of Allendale County ALIVE, says: "In South Carolina, we can't have any conversation without race as a factor. It bars our ability to see other issues, like environmental concerns."

So the environmental conversation is a race conversation. The development conversation is a race conversation. And the race conversation, in which the past taints the present, is so uncomfortable it defeats "progress."

Cave predicts the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector will be built. What's unresolved, he says, is an older question about race and fairness: "The question to me is not whether this area or that area is going to be developed. It's going to be developed, so the question is who will do it and who will benefit."

Answering that in a manner that satisfies most, not just a special few, likely requires mediation, says Warren.

And that shouldn't take place in Congress or the State House. Economic development must be "initiated and controlled by the people that live in the community," she says, and history tells us this is not the usual state of affairs.

Warren describes two key steps: Obtain accurate information, so the community knows what it really will get. "What is the real deal?" she asks. Next, determine what the community wants and what that costs. "Given the assets of our community, what kinds of ventures and projects could we develop?"

Faith Rivers, the attorney specializing in heirs' property, says environmental groups could benefit by more diversity in staff and membership. Then, perhaps, conversations would have a different tone, if not outcome.

She says neither African-Americans nor environmentalists pay enough attention to their common interest in preservation or to practical responses, such as conservation easements that reduce property tax liability.

Which brings us to the fourth, and final step: Acknowledge the need to negotiate a common dream.

Mikki Sager, of The Conservation Fund, thinks this could happen, this sharing of interests and concerns: "I believe, finally, everybody involved in this has the smarts and commitment to come up with good solutions," she says.

"People just need to listen to each other — and hear each other. Too often, when we say ‘middle ground,' it makes people think about compromise.

"It's really about balance."

And Clyburn replies that's where he already is, standing on the middle ground: "To me, this bridge is part of a middle ground."

The Lake Marion area isn't too remote, too sparsely populated for a bridge or other economic development efforts, Clyburn says. Consider all the sea islands with bridges, he notes, then chuckles. "That's just part of the game, and I don't play that game."

He adds, "It would make a whole lot of sense to plan this in such a way it preserves all our interests, protects people who are land poor, addresses economic needs, recreational activity, preserves history and accentuates heritage."

He quotes Socrates' admonition that an unexamined life is not worth living, then says, "I've spent a lot of time looking at this, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I am completely at ease with myself.

"I am completely at ease with the decision I have made and the methods I'm pursuing to get this done."

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