HARLEYVILLE — There's a woman who lives in the mobile home neighborhood with two of her young children. And then there's the couple on Mill Street — they're expecting their second child. A woman has started remodeling a home on Kate Street while another family is getting ready to move to Brazil.
Charles Ackerman has met them all.
As mayor of Harleyville for 27 years, Ackerman makes it a point to meet everyone who lives in this town stretching 1.7 miles from end to end at least once.
"That's the advantage of living in a small town, you get to know everyone individually," Ackerman said. "I like that personal touch, because if a resident has a problem, they know who they can come to. I always tell them I might not remember their name, but I'll always remember their face."
Many of the faces have changed since Ackerman and his wife, Deloris, moved to Harleyville in 1990 (he became mayor four years later) but the rural character of the town of roughly 700 residents has remained intact. People still relax on front porches brightly decorated with hanging flowers and, more often than not, an American flag. A monument along Main Street pays respect to Harleyville's fallen veterans and residents wear their small-town pride, literally, on their chests: Employees at the Just Desserts cafe sport T-shirts proclaiming "I'd Rather Be In Harleyville."
But while progress seems to move at the same slow crawl as the CSX Corp. freight trains that bisect Main Street, Ackerman knows change is headed toward the outer edges of Dorchester County.
"We have a lot of real estate companies coming in wanting to buy land and wanting to know what we can provide for them and where the water and sewer is," he said, adding the town's proximity to Interstates 26 and 95 could make Harleyville a prime industrial location.
Ackerman and other residents are conflicted about that potential.
A survey of town residents by Harleyville's government showed 84 percent are "somewhat concerned" or "very concerned" about maintaining a small-town atmosphere. That same survey, conducted last year, showed 79 percent shared the same concerns over job opportunities.
Stanley Lawley, general manager of the Ace Hardware store his father-in-law owns on Main Street, said growth would mean more customers, but he also worries about the vehicle traffic that comes with it.
"We're not used to that kind of thing," said Lawley, who's lived in Harleyville for 30 years.
The town recently completed an update to its comprehensive plan — a document designed to guide the town's future — that looks an awful lot like the comprehensive plan that was approved years ago.
"The town's vision? Keep it just like it is," Ackerman said, only half-jokingly. "Keep it like Harleyville."
Love and politics
Ackerman expects his latest term as mayor, which ends in 2023, will be his last. He'll turn 80 in August and is ready to relinquish his seat to "someone with some fresh ideas, new thoughts."
It's not the first time he's thought about stepping away from public life. He previously announced his retirement in 2001. The move prompted state legislators to pass a resolution in his honor, recognizing the "great pride and recognition" Ackerman has brought to the people of Harleyville and citing his "active role in all aspects of his governance and in the life of the community."
He ultimately decided to stay on the job.
Ackerman said he didn't plan to run for mayor in 2019, his most recent election, "but I had a lot of people talking to me, trying to convince me to do it again."
He tallied 90 votes against four write-in ballots.
It was love, not civic duty, that initially lured Ackerman to Harleyville.
Ackerman had grown up in nearby St. George and he knew the former Deloris Steen, a Harleyville native, from their days attending St. George High School. The two drifted apart after graduation, but after a pair of failed marriages they found each other again and married in 1982.
Charles Ackerman was an Army officer working at the Navy Shipyard in North Charleston — he retired as a brigadier general — and Deloris Ackerman wanted to move back to her hometown. The couple bought a home on Main Street, and Charles Ackerman decided to try his hand at politics.
"I ran for mayor and surprisingly won," he said of his first election victory. "I didn't expect to. I was running against a guy with 14 years of experience on Town Council."
Although many of his duties might seem like small-town stuff to some, it's of vital importance to his constituents. Like the time he got the state's Department of Transportation to paint a solid white line separating the driving and parking lanes along Main Street.
"We had a few mailboxes torn down and a couple of wrecks," Ackerman said, adding out-of-town drivers unfamiliar with the road thought they could travel in the right-hand lane where parking is allowed. "We still have some people who try to pass on the right-hand side. I've told my police officers to start ticketing those people."
When Harleyville had a problem with its town-limit signs being stolen on the assumption that Harley-Davidson enthusiasts were pilfering them for their garages or man caves, the town saw opportunity in the crime spree. Harleyville started making new signs and selling them. The thefts stopped and Harleyville made a little profit.
Ackerman has tried for years to convince Walmart to put one of its Neighborhood Markets in town, but the retail giant says the demographics just aren't there. The town had two grocery stores years ago, but one closed and the other burned to the ground, creating a food desert.
Ackerman finally got Dollar General to open a store, but it isn't the full-service grocery chain he's been after. For that, residents have to travel 9 miles to the Piggly Wiggly in Holly Hill.
"Dollar Generals are going everywhere," Ackerman said, "but it took us two years to get one."
A few industrial businesses have already discovered Harleyville.
SpecChem LLC, which makes curing compounds and sealants for the concrete industry, opened a 65,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in 2014 that employs about 50 people. Greg Maday, the company's chairman and CEO, said at the time that SpecChem picked Harleyville because of its central location along the East Coast, offering a one-day trip to customers between Miami and New York.
Two years ago, vehicle auction firm Copart opened a 53-acre facility where salvaged cars and trucks are sold to online bidders.
"Any time we can bring dozens of new jobs to the great people in Harleyville, we count that as a win," George Bailey, chairman of Dorchester County Council, told the Summerville Journal Scene when the auction firm made its Harleyville debut.
Harleyville has also fostered homegrown business growth, like the Just Desserts bakery and café, where grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches and sweet tea, with the emphasis on sweet, are specialties. Waitress Ariel Gallucci explained the cafe's "I'd Rather Be In Harleyville" T-shirts as a somewhat defiant answer to those who think the town is too small to support such a business.
"When we first opened, people would ask us why didn't we go to St. George or somewhere else," Gallucci said. "We'd always answer, 'We'd rather be in Harleyville,' "
Any large-scale growth, however, is going to depend on the town's water and sewer system. Ackerman has worked for decades to upgrade the treatment plant, replace equipment at and build new pump stations and replace waterlines that were installed in the 1960s, but he's not sure the current capacity exists to serve much more than residential growth. Any industry that locates at or near Harleyville would have to build its own infrastructure to hook into the town's system.
The town's comprehensive plan acknowledges expansion of the wastewater treatment plant "must be addressed to accommodate new growth." The project that could be eligible for up to $750,000 in grant funding.
"At some point we're going to be expanding," Ackerman said. "We need to start looking at where that expansion can take place and if we can handle it."
In the meantime, Ackerman will focus on the day-to-day duties of running the town for the nominal salary of $100 a month, while serving as a one-man welcome wagon for new residents.
Over the years, he's refined those in-person visits to give newcomers a hearty "hello" while also providing basic information about the town: who the council members are and where they live, where the closest doctor is located, when Town Hall is open and how to get in touch with the police or Fire Department.
And while he prides himself on meeting everyone, Ackerman still has a few residents to go.
"I've gone to their homes and knocked on their doors, but they won't come to the door," he said. "Maybe they're avoiding me because they think I'm trying to sell them something."