Fountain Inn’s Mayor and City Administrator Bring Youthful Perspective to City PlanningNov 03, 2022 03:34PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker
At 34, G.P. McLeer is the youngest mayor in Fountain Inn’s history, and his city administrator, Shawn Bell, at 36, took on his current position five years ago at age 31.
The two men are sharing their vision for a Fountain Inn that is a little more transparent and transformative than small cities have been in years past.
Fountain Inn’s growth has necessitated a different approach to everything from local business to infrastructure.
“I’m really proud of where our city has been heading,” McLeer said recently. “And I think we’ve been trying to do it in a way to not impede Fountain Inn’s future while still maintaining its downtown charm. We still have some tweaks that we want to do in order to ensure that that stays intact. We’re about to redo our comprehensive plan, which is a really big deal. That is the master plan for the community.”
The last master plan was adopted in 2017, just a few months before Bell joined Fountain Inn as city administrator. They’re in the process of drafting a new plan to succeed the 2017 document, which achieved all of its stated goals in less than five years.
The two men have different backgrounds, but a common goal for their adopted city.
A native of Anderson, McLeer helped to start the Younts Performing Arts Center in Fountain Inn, and he started the Mauldin Cultural Center, running it for six years, three of them as director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. He also served on the economic development team and worked to market the city.
After working in both Fountain Inn and Mauldin, he ran a statewide nonprofit focused on political advocacy work, the South Carolina Arts Alliance. He also is the executive director of the Upstate Mobility Alliance, which works with government entities to advance transportation solutions across the region.
Through that work, McLeer fell in love with local government, and it’s still one of his passions.
“I think it’s the most effective form of government on your daily life,” he said. “It deals with some really important issues that aren’t on the top of the ballot box when people go to vote in a presidential year – like their trash pickup or their parks or their Main Street revitalization. Those types of things that are extremely important. … I also love trying to find ways to make local government more efficient and transparent. I like policy and process – those are my two focuses.”
Bell grew up in the St. Louis area, in a small town called Glen Carbon, Illinois, which he said reminds him of Fountain Inn.
“Glen Carbon is this historic coal-mining town, which has had a similar population trajectory to Fountain Inn. Its next-door neighbor, Edwardsville, saw significant growth in the 1990s and 2000s very similar to that of Simpsonville,” Bell said.
He majored in political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he spent the early years of his career working in government relations and politics.
While obtaining a Master’s in Public Administration at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, he became intrigued by the idea of city management after one of his professors discussed it in class. That same professor helped Bell get an internship with the city manager in Ferguson, Missouri.
Bell’s wife grew up in Charlotte and wanted to be closer to family, so they moved to South Carolina after Bell finished grad school. He spent 1½ years as assistant city manager in Abbeville, then served as city administrator of Lake City for three years before joining Fountain Inn in October 2017.
Not every city can boast a city administrator and mayor with a combined age of 70, but Bell and McLeer are united in their love for Fountain Inn and their desire to find a way to balance the needs of a growing city with the intangible factors that make it a desirable place for businesses and families to locate.
One of McLeer’s goals has been to create a more transparent City Hall and government process.
“We redid our website to make everything more accessible for folks,” he said. “Immediately, we started posting recordings of our meetings, and then we had plans to livestream before Covid hit. Actually, we had ordered some equipment before Covid hit, like the week before, and ended up having to livestream. … And we also now livestream not just our council meetings, but also our boards and commissions.”
The meetings are also recorded for later viewing. This allows residents to follow the agenda and their issues of concern through each step of the process, and it helps that folks can watch the meetings even if they might have scheduling conflicts that would preclude their attending in person.
“It gives them another outlet to be informed and engaged,” Bell said.
Transparency is important in local government, McLeer said.
Zoning is another issue that is top of mind in Fountain Inn. McLeer and Bell are working to modify the zoning laws to “protect the character of Fountain Inn as we grow,” McLeer said.
The new plan will involve public input and a steering committee and will feature a new future land-use map, which is a key part of managing growth.
Eventually, McLeer said, the entirety of the city’s zoning laws will be rewritten. But zoning is a unique challenge for Fountain Inn because part of the city sits in Laurens County, which has no zoning laws.
Beyond the revision of the master plan, other changes on the horizon include the completion of the Main Street redevelopment project, the opening of a new public works and natural gas facility in the coming year, developing a parking master plan, as well as a master plan for the city’s parks.
As the city grows, Bell and McLeer have given special attention to the downtown area.
When thinking about how best to manage the city’s unprecedented growth, Bell looked at “what we most hold dear here. What is it that we want to protect? To me, it was easy … it’s our downtown. That’s what makes Fountain Inn from a physical standpoint. The people make Fountain Inn what it is, but from a physical infrastructure type of thing, it is our downtown. That’s why we’ve put this huge emphasis on protecting and preserving and enhancing our downtown.”
Over the years, the downtown business district has gone through up and down phases, times when there was 80 percent vacancy. These days, Bell said, it’s about 90 percent occupancy.
In recent years, Bell and McLeer have worked to attract businesses that could bring variety and vibrancy to downtown, with owners who look at operating their stores as a business – with evening and weekend hours – rather than as a hobby, Bell said.
Fountain Inn’s Main Street Grants Program has helped to beautify and improve the downtown area, and it’s been a boon for the city, Bell said.
“That was the impetus for the community to really start to understand that the growth is happening,” Bell said. “We cannot stop people from moving here. … I think it’s a compliment that people want to move to the community I manage.”
McLeer said, “The growth in Fountain Inn is a challenge not just on paper, but also for residents.”
“There absolutely has been some pushback, and I get it. There’s a lot of change happening,” Bell said.
Some people are taken aback by the rate of growth. “This is more change than they’ve ever seen in a short period of time,” Bell said.
Managing the growth brings together disparate elements, from zoning to property rights to infrastructure, McLeer said.
“Large tracts of land are being sold by families to developers,” McLeer said. “We always have to ask the question, ‘What is the appropriate role that local government can and should play in that conversation?’ We don’t want to impede the rights of property owners, regardless of who owns that piece of property. We don’t want to impede a family’s right to sell their property to whom they like at a price that the market allows them to sell it at. But at the same time, when something is developed, we want to be sure it reflects the character of the community, and that’s where zoning comes into play.”
If the city couldn’t envision the rate of growth when drafting the 2017 comprehensive plan, it’s no surprise that residents weren’t expecting it.
“I think folks rightfully have questions about the pace at which Fountain Inn’s growth has occurred and what are we trying to do to wrestle with it,” McLeer said.
The city’s demographics have changed in recent years. In addition to lifelong residents, Fountain Inn has welcomed transplants from other places, a diverse mix of people, many of them with young families.
And with the rate of manufacturing and business growth in both Greenville and Laurens counties, the residential growth is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. As Bell sees it, the city’s four exits off of Interstate 385 and the concentration of industry in the vicinity of those exits have contributed to the growth.
As companies move into the Upstate, transplants are looking at where they want to live.
“They’re choosing places like Fountain Inn because they can still have that hometown feel but maybe the land is a little bit cheaper, maybe they don’t have to deal with the traffic of downtown Greenville,” Bell said. “Whatever their reason, they feel like they can get the best of both worlds.”