Just as it has every three or four years since this century began, South Carolina’s smallest county recently had to find a new leader — and attracting a talented administrator is often a challenge.
Allendale County has seen young administrators move on to higher-paying jobs elsewhere. It has experienced corruption, if not in its own government, then nearby. The town administrator of the county seat pleaded guilty to stealing taxpayer money, and county schools have been so poorly run, the state took over.
Families earn less here than any other county in the state. While South Carolina has added a million people and grown by 20% since 2000, Allendale County’s population is down 20% in that time. The county on Georgia’s border has no Walmart, is an hour away from the nearest movie theater and is 45 miles (72 kilometers) from the nearest interstate.
This time officials looked locally for leadership: a native son who had moved on to bigger things but is ready to return.
“I love a challenge,” said William Goodson, a graduate of the local high school and former publisher of the county’s newspaper. “I want to do the best for these people I know. This place is important to me.”
While his tenure has yet to unfold, the process of selecting him mirrors the struggles in South Carolina’s poorest rural counties and in similar small places across the U.S.
How can such a community without many amenities attract and keep talented leadership?
The roughly $72,000 salary, while good for Allendale County, is about on par with the pay for running the parking department in Charleston.
Without a strong pull like family, young adults from rural places who reach college and a professional track tend to be gone forever.
It’s a challenge nationwide, going back more than a century to when factories started sprouting across the U.S. and people migrated from farms to small towns and then bigger cities, said Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University and co-author of the 2010 book “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America.”
“There is so much more money to make and so much more stuff to do,” Kefalas said. “Once you’ve seen the bigger world at college, it’s hard to come back.”
Allendale County now has about 9,000 people, losing 14% of its population since the 2010 U.S. Census. A half-dozen 1950s-era motels line U.S. Highway 301 through the heart of the county. Once the main New York-to-Miami tourist highway, it lost the vacation traffic decades ago after Interstate 95 opened two counties over.
Allendale County’s latest search for someone to run things began in November 2018, when the county fired administrator James Pinkney after two years. A lifelong local resident, he was retired from the nearby Savannah River Site, where the U.S. once made the cores for nuclear weapons and was in his 17th year on County Council.
Pinkney ran into another problem county managers serving at the whim of an elected body can encounter. A few County Council seats changed hands, and his support suddenly disappeared. Employees and department leaders were getting conflicting instructions.
“Not only are they looking over your shoulder, they are telling your people what to do,” Pinkney said.
He’s suing the county over his pay for the extra hours he put in. Pinkney’s $20,000 offer to settle has not been answered. In court papers, the county said Pinkney submitted no time reports before he was fired.
“I have a great deal of love for Allendale. I personally want to kick myself in the butt for staying around Allendale,” Pinkney said.
County Councilman Carl Gooding said Allendale County is actually well run, compared to its peers. The county raised taxes in July for the first time in six years and keeps a balanced budget. Unemployment in the Great Recession in 2009 was 21.3% but had fallen to 6.2% by June 2019.
“It’s a good place to live. It has a lot going for it,” said Gooding, who also runs the radio station in the county. “But it’s not easy to get someone from Greenville County to come down to Allendale.”
Greenville County, South Carolina’s largest, has a median household income of $46,830. In Allendale County, half the households make less than $20,081. That’s less than half of South Carolina’s median household income of $43,939.
Gooding and other County Council members received nearly 50 resumes for the administrator job. About two-thirds were quickly tossed as unqualified or too far away.
Council members reached out to Goodson from the start.
He’d first returned to Allendale County as director of its aging agency six years ago. After turning the department around, he took a similar job in Aiken County and now returns home.
“I was in Hardee’s last Saturday, and everyone was coming up to me and saying how good it was to see me again and how they can’t wait for me to start,” Goodson said.
Goodson wants to livestream County Council meetings and invite questions from viewers. If an idea doesn’t work, he said he’ll try something new.
Heather Simms Jones is one of five people who served as Allendale County administrator since 2000. She was young and ambitious, starting in 1999 as deputy administrator her second job out of college after growing up in nearby Estill.
Quickly promoted to the county’s leader, she tried to modernize by instituting drug testing and a policy for leave and vacations. She found resistance and a meddlesome council.
“In a small place, people are related. If I reprimand Tonya, guess what, three councilmen are cousins of Tonya,” Jones said.
In 2004, she took a job helping with economic development in Beaufort County near the beach. She got a raise and lost some headaches.
“As a young person, you want to be doing things — go out and enjoy your 20s,” Jones said. “You have to be careful doing that in a small place.”
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.