WALTERBORO -- The lilting strains of violin music drifted in the crisp air as a crowd of people gathered beneath a stand of moss-draped trees for the dedication of a new park trail named for a late local luminary buried just up the road.
Country dresses and blue blazers. Blooming mums and chirping birds. Hearty handshakes and neighborly hugs. The scene looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting depicting small-town life.
“It’s good to be here on the front porch of the Lowcountry,” state parks director Duane Parrish told the assembled crowd Wednesday morning. “Walterboro fits right into what we talk about as the wonders of undiscovered South Carolina.”
The city and surrounding Colleton County have made a number of improvements in recent years to draw tourists, new homeowners and businesses to the region. They talk about the sprawling new ball-field complex, the thriving farmers market and museum, the millions spent on new schools and other improvements, as well as Walterboro’s Southern charm, quaint downtown and the sense of community that binds them.
But in recent years, much of this has been overshadowed by the violence and gang problems that drew statewide attention to this rural area and the small city that serves as its county seat.
State agents swooped in and cleared out most of the entrenched gangs a few years back, and violent crime tumbled from a peak in 2007. But citizens and business leaders complain that Walterboro continues to be saddled with an unfair and misleading reputation as a crime-ridden place where people aren’t safe. They insist that nothing could be further from the truth.
“We need to put things in perspective,” Eric Campbell, pastor of Word for Life Ministries, said. “There is no denying we have some problems, but we also have many good things.”
Campbell, who also serves as the county’s director of voter registration, is a key organizer of a local movement called United Colleton, a coalition of more than 20 churches that have partnered with business leaders, elected officials and others to push crime prevention and provide a helping hand to needy and troubled neighborhoods.
A march and rally Sept. 28 drew more than 400 people — young and old, black and white, wealthy and poor — many dressed in the United Colleton’s bright green T-shirts. The group provided lunch and offered information on mentoring and job skills programs, community grants, Crime Stoppers and other aid.
The Colleton Business Alliance, a group of 12 local business leaders, has been funding the effort. Barnwell Fishburne, who runs a real estate and development corporation, said the group’s goal is to find positive solutions to problems, unify the community and “turn the tide on the reputation of this town.”
“The town was being portrayed in a negative light and people got really fed up about it,” he said. “I know I did. So we wanted to see what we could do to help.”
Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland, who took office this year, participated in the United Colleton event and welcomes the help. Strickland said he’s never seen so many people from so many different segments of the community working together with a common purpose.
“I’m 33 years old, I was born and raised here, and I’ve never seen the community like it is today,” he said. “One person can’t do it alone, but there is a lot of energy (here) to make things happen.”
Mayor Bill Young agreed: “Anything we can do to make things better, I’m all for it.”
In the not too distant past, it would have been unheard of to suggest gangs were active in Walterboro, which has roots dating to the late 1700s, when the owners of rice plantations arrived here looking to build summer homes. The city is now home to about 5,400 residents and is the largest community in rural Colleton County, sandwiched between Interstate 95 and the wealthier seaside counties of Charleston and Beaufort.
The city is surrounded by a collection of small, tight-knit towns nestled among stretches of woods and lowland. Its vibe centers on diversions such as fishing, barbecue, Friday night football and fireworks at the annual rice festival.
So people were stunned in 2006 when loosely organized bands of thugs began battling one another and settling their scores with gunfire in and around the city. Things finally came to a head in November 2009, when two adults and a 20-month-old girl were killed in a drive-by shooting near the corner of Gerideau and McDaniel streets.
Police intensified their efforts with aid from the State Law Enforcement Division and others. A state grand jury investigation followed, culminating in a June 2010 raid that targeted 20 members of rival gangs.
Aggravated assaults fell 36 percent in Walterboro that year and further reductions followed in 2011. The city saw an uptick in violent crime last year, but the numbers were still well below those of the peak gang years. Authorities said the county is on pace to see further declines this year.
Strickland has put more deputies on the streets, he’s working to forge stronger ties with neighborhood and community groups and working closely with Walterboro police while the city searches for a full-time chief.
Examples of the progress that’s been made, Strickland said, are statistics showing that aggravated assaults have dropped by half this year while the number of narcotics arrests have more than doubled.
Despite those gains, community leaders complain that violent crime continues to attract outside media attention, perpetuating Walterboro’s hang-dog image.
For example, much was made of four shooting incidents that occurred in the Walterboro area last month, even though one episode involved a pellet gun and another was likely the result of a self-inflicted wound, Strickland said.
Far more headlines were generated when authorities tied a Walterboro-based gang known as the Get Money Cowboys to a July shooting that killed a young woman and left three others wounded at a nightclub outside of St. George in neighboring Dorchester County. The incident renewed fears that gangs were again taking hold in Colleton.
Strickland said the incident was a bit of a black eye for the region, but local authorities felt it was important to be up-front about the group and meet the problem head-on. But while the stigma surrounding the incident may linger, the gang itself is largely gone, with members moving elsewhere when the heat came down, he said.
Local antiques dealer David Evans said he thinks Walterboro has gained so much attention from the gang incidents because that sort of activity is so unexpected in what is, overall, a quiet, charming, bucolic area.
“It’s like a dog having an accident on the floor after never having had an accident before,” he said. “Everyone is so shocked that it happened that they keep talking about it and it gets blown out of proportion.”
Evans said people in town need to stop focusing on the negative and pay attention to all the good things around them. “Until we stop thinking of ourselves as victims, we’re going to be victims,” he said. “This is a great town. People should be flocking here.”
If you doubt him, take a ride with a County Administrator Kevin Griffin and Heyward Horton, executive director of the Colleton County Economic Alliance. They’ll show you the new $4.5 million, 12-field Ace Basin Sports Complex, capable of handling major baseball tournaments; the shiny new county career skills center; the sprawling new county high school; and an old garage that was converted into a local museum and farmers market — a popular and innovative project that won a statewide award. In one stop, you can buy fresh veggies and check out woolly mammoth fossils or the history of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who broke military racial barriers during World War II.
Next door, the county is planning to renovate another building to serve as a community commercial kitchen, an incubator space for small food businesses to grow.
Also, Crescent Dairy & Beverage purchased a 100,000-square-foot building in the Colleton County Commerce Center, making a $34 million investment and creating 60 jobs, Horton said. And India-based SarlaFlex, a producer of yarn and threads, purchased the former New York Wire plant from the county, making a $13 million capital investment and creating 120 jobs, he said.
“We’ve seen more investment in the past year than we did in the previous 15,” Griffin said.
On a smaller scale, the city of Walterboro recently renovated the former Doodle Hill Park, sprucing up the playscape and renaming it Shaniya Burden Memorial Park, in honor of the little girl who died in the infamous 2009 drive-by shooting just down the street.
Her mother, Aleshia Kittrell, also was wounded in that shooting, and she carries scars on her arms and a bullet lodged in her back. She can laugh now, but the pain of losing her daughter remains tender. “I take it day by day,” she said.
Still, Kittrell likes what she sees these days when she looks out at the neighborhood where her world changed four years ago. She sees more police officers and deputies on patrol, more law enforcement interaction with the community, less gang-banging and trouble. It didn’t used to be that way, and she gives much credit to the new sheriff, a guy she simply calls “Andy.”
“It’s a work in a progress here,” she said, leaning forward in a plastic lawn chair outside her home. “But it’s changed a lot. I really think it’s getting better.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.