Town's main industry: Tickets

Tiny Jamestown in Lowcountry gets almost two-thirds of its budget from fines

JAMESTOWN - The Lowcountry's tiniest town has a national reputation for two things: the annual Hell Hole Swamp Festival and traffic tickets.

Jamestown, population 97, extends about a half-mile in each direction from the intersection of S.C. 41 and S.C. 45, which are major truck corridors in Berkeley County. The main attraction is the BP gas station and Kangaroo convenience store at the intersection.

There's not much else to slow down for. So the officer on duty keeps busy pulling over drivers and writing tickets.

Traffic court is every other Wednesday afternoon. The courtroom is in the municipal center, a neatly painted gray and white cinder block building next to the gas station.

"We'll work with you and try to save you some money and as many points as possible," Town Judge Lewin K. Platt told a handful of people sitting in the courtroom during last week's session.

Citadel cadet Moore, who said he goes by just his last name, walked out holding a ticket. He had to pay $175.

"I was passing a car (at 60 mph) and suddenly found myself in a 40 mph speed zone," Moore said. "My mother and grandmother told me this was a speed trap."

Officials expect fines to bring in $195,000 of the town's $313,200 budget this year.

That's 62 percent of the budget funded by tickets, which is nearly as much as in Cottageville, another tiny town known for its ticket-writing.

Cottageville, a town of 700 residents in Colleton County, expects traffic fines to contribute $450,000 of its $703,000 budget this year, or 64 percent.

Officials in both towns say they're working on changing their image.

"One of the issues I heard most often every time the town of Jamestown was mentioned was speed trap," Jamestown Police Chief John "Jay" High said.

He made some changes when he became chief in 2006. He couldn't change the speed limit because that's set by the state.

"It's a safety issue," he said. "If you're coming through here at 70 mph, you're not driving too fast, you're flying too low."

But he got the state Department of Transportation to put up new yellow signs warning of the speed change. He also told his officers to ticket only people going 15 mph over speed limit.

Mayor Roy Pipkin calls it the most lenient traffic policy of any town in the state.

"It's well-posted," Pipkin said. "We've done everything we can."

Of course, he said, the best way to get people to slow down coming through Jamestown is to give them something to see. Now the town includes a row of empty storefronts along S.C. 41 and a vacant community building and an empty school building on S.C. 45.

On the other hand, the town has three churches, which don't contribute to the budget but keep the residents busy.

Pipkin, a retired S.C. National Guard colonel, grew up in Jamestown. His dad helped form the town in 1957.

Pipkin, who has been mayor since 1997, and council members Jean Guerry and Jimmy Callum filed for re-election with no opposition. The town has canceled its 2009 election.

"We need to get some infrastructure in here," Pipkin said. "We're a long way from just about anything."

Two years ago, he tried to expand the town to about 300 residents to attract a grocery store. The initiative lost by five votes.

"Some people just don't like change," he said.

He plans to try again in the spring.

A neat little gray shed by the railroad tracks boasts a sign that says Hell Hole Swamp Festival Headquarters. The white window sills are decorated with American flag bunting.

The festival raises money for charities and does not contribute to the town's budget, other than boosting sales at the gas station the first week of May, Pipkin said.

But the festival helped build a new maintenance shed by the municipal center a couple years ago. It also built a fountain in the town park and a steel shed for community dinners.

Still, attendance at the Hell Hole Swamp Festival has been shrinking, from about 10,000 at one time to typically 2,000 or 3,000 now, Pipkin said. It's also getting harder to find volunteers to run it.

"We're all getting old here," he said. "We need more young people. But I have to ask myself: What is there in Jamestown to draw anybody to move here?"

Jean Guerry has lived in a gray house across from the town offices since 1958. Her late husband, Cecil B. Guerry, was the town's postmaster and first mayor.

She's interested in the original Jamestown, a settlement by the Santee River about two miles outside the modern town limits. She's been pushing to get a historical marker for LeNud's Ferry there.

If the proposed town expansion goes through in the spring, it will bring more historic sites into the town limits, giving people more of a reason to stop.

"It's a good place to live," Guerry said. "There are interesting people here."

Over in Colleton County, Cottageville also is working to change its image, Mayor George White said. The town is looking for other sources of income besides traffic tickets, but it's tough in this economy, he said, especially with state funding cuts.

"We're trying to get away from that speed-trap mentality," White said. "The state is making it very difficult for a small town to survive."