Editor's note: Darla Moore has a vision for South Carolina, a state she has returned to after making her fortune on Wall Street. This is the second of two stories on one of the most influential women in South Carolina.
LAKE CITY — Everyone in Lake City remembers where they were and what they were doing when the space shuttle Challenger exploded Jan. 28, 1986.
Rita Smith was undergoing a pregnancy procedure at the hospital when she got the news. Marion Lowder was surveying a stretch of the town where a new waterline was to be installed. Darla Moore, working her first job after graduate school, was buried in bankruptcies at 65 Broadway in New York City.
Some years later, Moore would work with the Ronald McNair Committee to renovate Lake City's old library and convert it into a museum. A monument to McNair stands near the building in the heart of town, a testament to his accomplishment and sacrifice.
Moore cares a lot about her hometown.
Thousands turn out each fall for the annual Tobacco Festival, which began 53 years ago as an industry-sponsored celebration. About 60,000 people live within a 15-mile radius of Lake City, and the festival is always a huge draw, featuring vendors, entertainment and lots of tradition. Until recently, it included a spitting contest — not inappropriate for what was once the harvest-time main event with tobacco playing the starring role.
"It's part of our heritage and we celebrate it," said Marion Lowder, city administrator.
The festival's epicenter is a big parking lot bordered on one side by the backs of stores lining East Main Street, some newly designed landscaping, an open-air stage, the Bean Museum, an old warehouse or two and the chamber of commerce building. Here, a farmers market sells local produce on Saturdays. Train tracks run straight through the center of town, which was once a major agricultural hub of the Southeast.
The National Bean Market Museum doubles as a civic center, but with one tiny kitchen, no central heating or air and little meeting space, the building mostly is used for displays that hark back to the old agricultural days.
Sherri Moore, the museum's associate director and no relation to Darla, said she recently turned down about a dozen requests for use of the space because it lacked necessary provisions. But such refusals soon will cease. The city just secured $400,000 from Florence County to help fund planned renovations.
In 1998, the building went up for sale, another relic of a past age destined to join the many other stores and warehouses that have fallen into disuse. That's when Eugene T. Moore, Darla's father, stepped in. There was no way Gene Moore was going to stand by and let the centerpiece of his town become a candidate for conversion or destruction. Decline might be inevitable, but allowing the Bean Museum to become the symbol of that decline was too much to bear.
So Gene Moore — all-star varsity football and baseball player, public school science teacher, coach, mentor to the young men of Lake City — bought it and saved it.
Gene Moore's passion and determination rubbed off on his daughter. Darla and Marion Lowder, working with experts and consultants, met for two years to devise a master plan for the town. The plan calls for greenspace and streetscapes, building renovations, a new amphitheater, a commercial breezeway behind the stores of Main Street and an enhanced Tobacco Festival.
Darla and Lowder go way back to junior high school, when they were just beginning to imagine a future. Lowder played football for the junior varsity Wartlips, coached by Darla's father. A halfback, Lowder had a tendency to lean in the direction he would run, earning him the hunting-affiliated nickname "Birddog."
"Birddog and I used to neck," Darla said with a smile. "He was my first boyfriend."
She was once an athlete, too. She excelled at varsity basketball. Her life since those school days in Lake City has unfolded very much like a basketball game where a determined player eyes the basket from one end of the court and makes for it with unrelenting force and precision, avoiding the human obstacles along the way.
Birddog put it simply: "When she saw something she wanted, she went after it."
Darla Moore wants to pull South Carolina up from the bottom of the nation's economic rankings, and it is per-capita income that serves as her rallying cry.
If the state's residents earn more money, they can do more. They can invest better, do better research, develop better businesses, better support their communities. They can make South Carolina into a center for entrepreneurship and next-generation enterprise.
To get there, policymakers must understand the obstacles. The three research universities in the state must better coordinate their efforts and develop public-private initiatives. The public school system must turn out a better-educated work force. The state must provide incentives to students to continue their education, then remain in South Carolina. The state's tax structure must be revised so enterprise can flourish. And the business enterprise paradigm must be sustainable, able to multiply its successes without compromising the environment or society.
"We've made some progress on this, but as you can imagine, the challenges are daunting," said Jim Fields, director of the Palmetto Institute, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research and educational organization established by Darla Moore in 2002. "We want a strong state and a competitive state, not a discount state with a discount tax structure."
The institute is pushing for tax reform, recommending to legislators that they repair the recently destabilized structure that favors the less-reliable sales tax over the property tax and shifts the property tax burden to businesses, according to Fields.
The decrease in education spending and other economic distortions are crippling the state, he said. The best tax structure relies on a broad base and low rate.
"South Carolina must both create and attract good, secure jobs for our citizens and overall economic viability in the reality of a fiercely-competitive global economy," Darla Moore wrote in a public memorandum posted on the institute's Web site. "This can't happen without a solid foundation of quality education, reliable infrastructure, and vibrant communities with a sustainable environment."
At her Charleston home during a reception the evening before last week's AgSummit, Moore showed off the enormous first-edition King James Bible resting on a stand. She slapped her palm on its leather cover and turned the precious pages with deliberation, showing her guests the illustrated genealogy, each biblical name afloat within a printed circle.
Then she took an awestruck guest to the nearby bookcase and began to pull down volume after volume, one more precious than the next. "Treatise of Human Nature" by Hume. "Tom Jones" by Henry Fielding. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Essays" and John Locke's "Letters Concerning Tolerance." "The Federalist Papers" by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." Voltaire's "Candide."
A theme emerged: capitalism and its origins.
The oldest book in her extraordinary collection is "History of the Church of England" by the Venerable Bede, in its original 1565 binding. Moore pulled it from its case and flipped through the ancient pages. The guest worried about oil transferring from the fingertip to the page, about the ultraviolet light (what little of it there is in the warm room) compromising the microscopic sinews holding this relic together.
But Moore didn't seem to worry about those things. She touched these books with a degree of impunity — because she can. But don't think she is immodest.
"This is lent to me," she said. "I just have the privilege of living with it for my lifetime."
She works with a book dealer in Baltimore who, white-bearded, looks like Santa Claus. He visits her with a large leather bag in tow, and they sit for an hour talking about family, politics and the state of the world, Moore said.
"Then I say, 'So what did you bring me?' "
And he would say, "Well, I have something for your consideration."
And Moore, the purposeful businesswoman who left the state so many years before so that she could return to save it, rubs her hands with glee.
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