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Former SC commerce chief Joe Taylor set to take council seat shaping Columbia policy

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Joe Taylor. Rick Smoak/Provided

COLUMBIA — As Joe Taylor prepared for orientation a month before he is to be sworn in to his new job as Columbia City Council member, the capital city was still coming down from an intense election cycle of which he was but a footnote in his uncontested race.

But he might not be in the shadows long.

Those who know Taylor — a business owner, real estate investor and perhaps most notably a former state commerce secretary — believe he will have an outsized role in his seat representing District 4 east of downtown.

"He's a hardcore business person, understands economics, understands creating jobs, and I think you're gonna see Joe carry a pretty heavy load himself personally trying to get business (here)," former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson said. "Joe Taylor's gonna be spending his own money trying to get people to do business in Columbia."

That's the background Taylor brings to his elected office.

Taylor, 63, grew up in Columbia, the son of an entrepreneur and investor. He helped found Southland Log Homes with his father, Joe Taylor Sr., and not long after graduating from Wofford College became the CEO of the log home business, helping grow the company to two manufacturing plants, more than a dozen sales offices and producing more than 1,000 homes in 2005, the year Taylor sold the operation.

After that he was picked by then-Gov. Mark Sanford as state Commerce Secretary, helping to recruit industry to the state through the Great Recession.

"It was at a point in my life where I had sold the company and was really looking at something that I could do as a give back to my community," Taylor said. "I know that sounds hokey, but it's true. Because I'm gonna tell you, I wouldn't have what I have if it hadn't been for the community of Columbia, South Carolina. And that's really truly why I ran for city council." 

Most recently, Taylor has invested in real estate and local business startups, helping spur development in West Columbia while a frequent critic of the capital city's business climate.

While outgoing Mayor Steve Benjamin has defended Columbia as competitive on economic development with a tax rate that hasn't grown in his more than 10 years in office, Taylor and political ally and mayor-elect Daniel Rickenmann have bemoaned what they say is a stifling local tax climate when combined with Richland County and two school districts, with cumbersome permitting and fees.

Taylor launched his campaign from the cramped quarters of Il Bucato, the pizza restaurant run by friend Steve Cook where Taylor is a partner. Despite representing a small slice of Taylor's business interests, Cook said he hears from his partner at all hours.

"I will tell you he attacks this little pizza place the same way I'm sure he attacks a giant company," Cook said. "He's only got one speed."

Cook, president of the Five Points Association who also own's Saluda's restaurant, and Taylor met several years earlier during an effort with Rickenmann and others to create a multistep plan for bolstering the popular shopping and nightlife district.

Five Points isn't in Taylor's district, but he has strong feelings about what the city should do to improve the village, including doing away with parking meters, updating landscaping and drawing more business outside of the college bars the area is known for.

The bullet points Taylor hit during his campaign — public safety, clean streets and making business easier — are attainable and not simply rhetoric from someone looking to win power and keep a seat, Cook said.

"I really admire the fact that he's willing to step into the arena," Cook said. "Especially something like local politics, where this isn't something he has to do, this isn't a stepping stone, certainly for him."

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

Columbia reporter

Stephen Fastenau is a local government reporter covering the City of Columbia, Richland County and general assignments. He returned to Columbia after 10 years as a reporter at The Island Packet and is a University of South Carolina graduate.

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