Fixing Walterboro's image

Walterboro Police Chief Otis Rhodes waves to a passing officer as he patrols a neighborhood Wednesday.

Brad Nettles

WALTERBORO -- Gangs locked in combat. Bullets flying in the night. Police calling for reinforcements to quell the violence.

These are hardly desirable selling points for a community that bills itself as "the front porch of the Lowcountry." And working in real estate, Mayor Bill Young knows the importance of curb appeal.

He and other city officials have looked on in dismay in recent months as the media has chronicled a string of shootings and gang violence in Walterboro and surrounding Colleton County. Over and over, they've fielded phone calls from friends around the state who ask if the small city has turned into a lawless outpost where the streets aren't safe to walk.

Young acknowledges some crime problems, but he insists these dire perceptions of his city of 5,800 people couldn't be further from the truth. He says Walterboro is bursting with good things, but getting that message to the outside world has been a challenge.

So now, Walterboro is getting some professional help.

The city has hired Elizabeth L. Boineau's marketing and public relations firm to restore some shine to its image. The Charleston-based consultant is helping spread the word about the city's crime suppression efforts and highlight events, attractions and good news that may be overlooked.

"We want everyone to be aware that the city of Walterboro, with its historic charm, rich natural resources ... and warm Southern hospitality, remains a safe place to live, visit, play and work," she said in a news release.

Boineau's services cost the city between $70 and $145 per hour, depending on whether she or one of her assistants handles the work, City Manager Jeff Lord said. Since the contract was inked in late March, they've spent almost $5,000 on the effort.

Among other things, Boineau said, her firm has met with city officials, researched concerns and developed and distributed a media kit with information about Walterboro. She also developed a database of media contacts and spread the word about this weekend's Antiques, History and Arts Festival, she said.

The city's image clearly took a hit after a Nov. 9 drive-by shooting that killed two adults and a 20-month-old girl and left six others wounded on Gerideau and McDaniel streets. Several more shootings followed in the area, prompting the State Law Enforcement Division to send in reinforcements and the state grand jury to launch an investigation. Talk swirled of feuding gangs, blazing guns and street justice.

Young said the bad publicity after the shootings hasn't hurt business for Walterboro. Quite the contrary, business is booming for local retailers and cars with out-of-state plates are commonplace as tourists visit the city's antiques shops and 842-acre Great Swamp Sanctuary, he said.

Just last month, large crowds turned out for the Colleton County Rice Festival and the Downtown Walterboro Criterium, a professional bike race. More folks were expected for the antiques festival, and state officials are coming to town Wednesday to unveil SLED's new regional office there.

So why the need for a public relations blitz?

Young and other community leaders said they are mostly sticking up for their city's pride and trying to set the record straight about the region's crime problems. For instance, Walterboro is perceived as the epicenter of the violence, even though a number of the shootings occurred outside the city limits, some as far as 20 miles away. Walterboro just seems to carry all the baggage because it is the county seat and Colleton's largest municipality, he said.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't let our reputation be tarnished by one or two unfortunate incidents that are not the norm," he said. "Walterboro is still the same place it's always been."

Still, city officials said they are not ignoring the crime issue. Among other things, the city is working to improve community policing, encourage crime watch groups, push anti-crime legislation at the state level and work closely with other law enforcement agencies, clergy and a youth advisory committee to improve safety and calm tensions, they said.

Police Chief Otis Rhodes said his department recently launched a two-person drug team that already has arrested a marijuana dealer. The city also worked with the utility company to improve street lighting along Gerideau Street, where the November shooting occurred. They've had fewer problems as a result, he said.

Still, more work needs to be done. A recent gun buy-back program netted only three firearms after rumors spread that the event was a trap set by police, Rhodes said. "It's a trust issue. Some people thought they were being set up."

Antiques dealer David Evans is confident everything will sort itself out. He's tired of hearing people trash-talk his city and refuses to let that sour his positive attitude about Walterboro. Sales are up, sidewalks are full and life is good, he said.

"It's a great town, and the good going on in Walterboro definitely outweighs the bad," he said. "The key is to have a positive outlook. And when people say bad things, we've just got to learn to talk louder."