April 21, 2013

Darla Moore Q&A: ‘Change comes from the grassroots now’

Darla Moore is working from the ground up.

Darla Moore is working from the ground up.

By turning her Pee Dee hometown of Lake City into a big art gallery over the next week, the financier hopes to provide an example for fixing South Carolina’s economic and educational woes.

“You’ve got to focus on having your impact locally, or you’re wasting your money and your time,” Moore told The State newspaper on the eve of the art festival and competition dubbed ArtFields in the town of 6,700. “We’ll end up sharing what we have done in Lake City all over this state because it will be successful and people will want to know, ‘What in the world did y’all do?’ ”

Moore said she has given up hope that government – and its elected officials – can cure South Carolina’s ills. Her statewide efforts have given way to promoting private-public partnerships driven by community leaders who want to help their towns.

“It’s very difficult, but it has a far greater positive outcome than thinking you’re going to give money to a politician that’s going to make anything happen because that’s not possible anymore,” Moore said from her family farm, which has become a botanical garden. “Change comes from the grass roots now, and the more people recognize that and embrace it, the more positive effect we’re going to have in this state ”

Moore, 58, has worked to improve South Carolina’s fortunes for years.

Her 11-year-old nonprofit Palmetto Institute, headquartered in Columbia, has helped bring in national experts to discuss ways to bolster the state’s economic quality of life.

To boost education, Moore also became the largest benefactor ever of her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, and she served on its board of trustees until she was ousted by Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011. A new $106.5 million business school building at USC, which bears Moore’s name, is scheduled to open in December.

Moore’s recent accomplishments also extend to the golf course, where she and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the first women to walk the Masters golf tournament wearing the green jacket of an Augusta National member.

Here are excerpts of Moore’s interview with The State newspaper:

What have you done in Lake City?

“We have been working infrastructure. Some of the sewer and water plants, they were put in 1919 and there has been no upgrading or expansion since then.

“Workforce. That deals with everything from bringing in the tech schools to bringing in Francis Marion (University) to offer courses in various disciplines to also taking on the local school district. We got into it pretty heavy with local school district, beating the sitting board to replace the superintendent. We now have virtually all new control of the board and new superintendent.

“And then we started looking at the condition of the (downtown) buildings. We have very good fortune to have about four blocks of 1920s architecture that we were too poor to tear down so have kind of (been) spit and taped together for years. We have started selectively renovating and saving buildings and putting new tenants in them.”

Do you expect ArtFields to engage more than an arts crowd?

“You have got to engage your community. You have got to have willing partners from every aspect of your community because, at the core, this is an economic effort that the product just happens to be culture.”

Are more developments coming to Lake City?

“We’re building them right now. I’m going down to see one of the restaurants that (opened last week). We have got a 56-room boutique hotel waiting to start any moment now. We have retail stores coming in. … We did an economic study of the Lake City community, and we discovered that about $120 million in retail dollars leak out of Lake City annually. ... We learned that what people want most is food and apparel. The first efforts we made in rehabbing buildings in the downtown area were for food and retail.”

How much have you spent to help Lake City in recent years?

“A lot! … I’m not going to put a number on it. I have made a very deep commitment to the state of South Carolina and my home. I’m happy to be able to do it.”

Why did you turn your attention Lake City rather than the state?

“It was a gradual decision, but I realized that to do something at the state level was a pretty futile effort. I determined, after a long time here, that if you want to make a real impact on peoples’ lives and an economy that you’ve got to do it yourself, and you’ve got to do it with boots on the ground and you’ve got to do it from the grassroots out. You cannot come down on top of it.

“I realized there’s no help coming from the state government. There’s no help coming from the federal government. And the only way South Carolina improves itself is by one community at a time taking stock of itself and saying, ‘We’re better than this, and we’re going to jump in here and make ourselves better.’

“We still work heavy statewide, but we use what we learn at a local level to spread out statewide versus 30,000-foot data to push down on people.”

How do communities overcome obstacles?

“The way you overcome them is for people to take an example from us. ... Governments don’t build economies anyway. The private sector in partnership with government agencies and other organizations, that’s what will reinvent these communities in South Carolina.”

Columbia is filled with talk about private-public partnerships. How can you do it better?

“We know what we’re doing. We have a partnership with the town of Lake City (and) with Florence County. We have a memo of understanding with the city of Columbia to use their specialists and expertise in areas such as water and sewer to help us.

“In most of these communities, politics is the real problem. When we get pushed back on, and in the early days we did, people would say, ‘Oh you can’t do that’ or ‘We can’t do that’ or ‘That won’t work,’ we didn’t back down. You’ve just got to nod and keep going and, eventually, a lot of the naysayers will come around.

“In the end, if you work in partnerships with the government, the private sector, your civic organizations, you’ll build an army, and we’ve done that.”

Are you going to get involved in the 2014 gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races?

“Not really. My faith in elected office is so diminished that I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference, frankly. The system is so broken that one person or one election is not going to impact it.”

How is USC doing?

“We went on a 10-year, 12-year strategic plan within the university to improve the quality and raise the bar. I had to get into there and do a lot of work, but I am very pleased with where the school is today.

“And if we hadn’t (done the work) – we’re in a global economy – we wouldn’t survive. We had to do that. … We have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right trajectory.”

Has your influence changed at USC since you left the board of trustees?

“I don’t think it has changed a bit. It’s influence that is there because they’re good ideas and because there’s great passion for excellence and quality.”

What was your first Masters like as an Augusta National member?

“It was exciting. … Standing up for days on end, walking around a golf course. That was rigorous, I’m telling you.”

Did anyone talk to you about being one of the first female Augusta National members?

“Some congratulations.”


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