Skip to content
<p><iframe allow="autoplay" frameborder="0" height="110px" src="https://player.pippa.io/5a7367eb2219bdf808ec93f8/episodes/gov-gab-town-of-west-pelzer-sc-ep-2?theme=white&amp;latest=1" width="100%"></iframe></p>

Hear what it takes to grow as a small town

Episode 2 features Town of West Pelzer, South Carolina Mayor Blake Sanders. Besides his duties as a husband and father, Mayor Sanders is a Professor at Clemson, Planner at the Town of Easley and a Landscape Architect.

We dive deep into some of the inner workings of a small town and how they are trying to expand and grow for the future. 

Contact Info:
https://westpelzer.com/
bsanders@westpelzer.com

 

Show Script: 

Blake:

How do you take a mayor and make it an uncommon role? How do you reevaluate, refocus, reinvigorate a community that for 50 years had kind of stood still. And to me, it was, again, my passion. It was understanding what my passion was early on in my career or political career that I just wanted to give back.

Brian:

Good afternoon and welcome to another episode of the Gov Gab Radio podcast. I'm your host Brian Ondrako. Thanks for being a part of this episode. Excited to have you here for our guest today where we talk with Mayor Blake Sanders of West Pelzer, South Carolina. Had a really exciting conversation with him, you know, he has a very small population it's about 1,000 right there, thereabouts in South Carolina and it was really intriguing to hear his thoughts were. You know, although it's a lot smaller than maybe other jurisdictions, their challenges are that different certainly, there's a different scale potentially but they still go you know, through a lot of the same challenges that other jurisdictions that are very large go through, so it was interesting to hear his perspective on that. Here are some of the initiatives of the town and where they like to go and get his feedback on you know, why he decided to run for mayor and some of the things that was all about so actually it's a pretty intriguing story, and I think you guys are really going to enjoy it. I'll make one ask before we jump in the episode if you guys do enjoy this episode, or maybe you enjoyed episode one with Mayor Weinbrecht, please head over to iTunes to our Operate Intelligently Podcast. Please leave a review let us know how we're doing. Let us know how this Gov Gab Radio Podcast is doing for you guys. And if you had any feedback, that would be certainly appreciated. So without further ado, let's jump in our chat today with Mayor Blake Sanders. 

Brian:

Blake, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining today.

Blake:

Absolutely. Thanks for having me. 

Brian:

So I wanted to start off the conversation. You know, because you have a couple of these roles here, which are kind of cool, where, you know, you work for the city of Easley, you're the mayor of West Peltzer, and I want to get in all that and kind of how you manage all that. But can you take a step back for the for the audience just so they kind of understand your background a little bit, maybe the cliff notes version of kind of your background schooling how, you know, maybe wanted to get into from a city planning standpoint and that type of you know avenue from a career maybe start there and then that'll, that'll take us on a variety of tangents, I'm sure.

Blake:

Yeah, sure. So I grew up just outside of West Pelzer, a municipality of 188 people and everyone knows everyone can kind of every all the children were at the hospital together elementary school together middle school together, and so growing up in that small town I always had, always ask the questions peeling back the onion of why is this city this small. And I'm not sure why my schooling I guess kind of kind of led me to landscape architecture. My dad worked in a factory setting. And my mom was a self starter and small business owner. And so ended up applying to Clemson as an education major and started my first semester there and had to had to teach a 30-minute course in elementary, middle and high school levels. And I realized that I didn't really love children as much as I thought I did that I needed to take a step back and kind of figure out what I wanted my future to look like. I took a year off from school and work at Southern Wesleyan University in their facilities and maintenance department and started working with the campus planner, awesome apartment layouts and building layouts. And he said, you know, you'd make a really good landscape architect. And I had no idea what it was. So I jumped in my truck, drove over to Clemson met with the department chair of landscape architecture and said, Hey, I think I'd like to change my major over to this. And he told me know that you would not make a good landscape architect. And I was much, much deeper a field than I thought it was the end, I kind of balk at it, and signed up anyway, and fell in love with it. And what I found out was that landscape architecture was really a mold of the community mindset, the client mindset as an end product, but also a way to express yourself artistically and started having fun. And it became a passion. I didn't know it was my passion until I stepped into it. And I was blessed enough to be able to intern with some larger company that let me work on some projects across the globe. And now this is my chance in just in my mid 30s, but I'm already started see kind of the the, the fruits of the seeds that were planted, you know, 20 years ago at Clemson that I'm getting get back to my community to my profession. And that's my passion now is giving back.

Brian:

And, I mean, what was it. I guess, why did you decide to go in and work from it from a public sector side of the house, right? Go to work for the city visa? why did why did you make that choice?

Blake:

Yeah, so I worked for a couple of different companies along the way, all private firms really working my way up the food chain, per se, and and starting off as a as an entry level landscape architect or land planner, becoming licensed work for a firm when I ran the South Carolina office. And we were doing projects regionally. And even touching some global projects, hired my own staff, running my own budgets, and I found myself being more entrenched in other communities than I was my own. And so my wife and I really had a chance to sit down, step back and go, okay, we're, before we get to our midlife crisis, let's make sure that we are that we're believers in our passion, and decided to take a step back and say, you know, I really want to work in the in the public sector. And again, give back to the community. The firm I was working for, I was actually working a lot in the city of Easley and had a lot of contracts, had day-to-day conversations with the mayor and city administrator. 

And one day after one of our weekly meetings, the city administrator said, hey, let's go out for coffee. And we sit down and start talking about the city as a whole, and other planning projects that would be going on. And I guess in my mind, I was thinking, well, this is more consultant contracts that I'll be working on. And at the end of the day, a city that's 150 years old had never had a city planner before. And they were creating the position and wanted to know if I would be interested in it, that they were essentially  creating it for me, hoping I would be. And so it was definitely a blessing. At the same time, my wife and I were having some conversations about our passion, and being able to get back to the community being able to be at all of our kids basketball games, or cheerleader practices. At the same time, we're being blessed on the other side by the city of Easley creating something for us. And all good things happen for four a reason.

Brian:

So I'm curious now because obviously being the you know, the mayor of West Peltzer where you grew up, did you always like, growing up, were you in like, you run for like, student government and those type of things. Did you always want to be in that type of role, potentially? Or is that something that just kind of popped in your head over the last handful of years?

Blake:

Yeah, it definitely just popped into my head. And it's actually a funny story, how we, and we even got back to go West Pelzer again. We grew up just outside of, of city limits. And I always told my, my parents, I'll never move back. I'll never move back. You're not as progressive as I want you to be. You don't see the whole world. You just see you're looking through blinders. And I realized that I was definitely eating my words. And as I was saying it, my dad was probably laughing knowing that I would be moving back. And so my wife and I were living in downtown Greenville and were still attending church back locally. And we drove home one day, and the guy was pushing the for sale by owner sign with the ground. And so we went in and looked at looking at looking at buying homes. And it was a it was a fixer upper, almost 100 years old at the time. And my wife said I really don't think I don't really think I'm into that right now. I'd rather just maybe establish a family before we get into redoing homes. And I called the guy anyway, and made him an offer and had to explain them all up later, and all that we had just purchased a house in West Pelzer, and we will be moving from downtown Greenville in 30 days. 

And so that was a little awkward conversation to have either laugh about moving back to to a small town. And then once we moved there, you know, as small towns go you see the folks at the at the grocery store, church or you see them at elementary school and they start to have conversations about Oh, you would be really good in a public service setting. And so I found that to be on the Planning Commission, they thought my background fit that role, and I decided to run for city council. And once I got on city council, I started really understanding how government works. And for me in a strong mayor form of government, I understood that to be transformative and to create a community that I had yearned for as a middle school or high schooler. And while I was in college, that I needed to be able to make those decisions and create the environment that was really transformative and can kind of how do you how do you take a mayor and making an uncommon role? How do you re evaluate, refocus, reinvigorated community that for 50 years had kind of stood still. And to me, it was, again, my passion was understanding what my passion was early on in my career or political career that I just wanted to give back. I wanted to listen to the community, which was my client, in my professional setting, and reinvest more, communicate my vision, have the big idea and really start to think about commitment to the public sector. And that's, that's really what started the whole conversation for being a mayor was was being able to invest in in the public setting.

Brian:

What was one of the, I guess, biggest challenges or maybe something you found out later on that, you know, you didn't really realize it was going to be part of the process of running for mayor?

Blake:

Yeah, I didn't realize that, you know, running for mayor is very simple in a small town. There's not a lot of big banks backing you or needing a lot of input from, from, from big donors, per se, but meeting people and talking to them about what they actually wanted was different than what I perceived that their needs or wants would be. I found out that some of the, some of the standard principles from from strong talent, how to make a successful talent or things that they were looking for, you know, one of the successful downtown principles that Mayor White in Greenville has always said that you need to have more street festivals. And I knew that in the back of my head as I'm designing streets around the country. But then when I go and talk to some citizens that had lived in town for you know, 40, 50, 60 years and they were telling me we want to have more festivals in town we want it to be like it used to be where we had cops and we had carnivals and and so they were telling me what the strong count principles were. And I didn't realize that would be be the case. And so a lot of the learning curve for me was communicating the different ideas and trying to really regurgitate what they were saying, and up into a planning principle. 

The other thing I didn't understand was, how much time it would take. And having two children, you know, I thought I didn't have much free time. But obviously, I found a way to carve out more time to be a mayor. And I mean, for time. And I mean, it's investing it, it's embracing it, it is treasuring the time that while you're in office while you're there, so being able to sit back and kind of see the fruits of what's the plan, it is managing the time, then it's also enjoying your town. And I've definitely found what I'm passionate about. And over the course of my first term, I'm in the fourth year of my first term that finally hit the point where I'm treasuring and enjoying my time in office. I'm having fun talking to people and letting them see that those things they told me four years ago, three years ago, about what their what their vision was, and what they wanted to embracing the community, they're starting to see it come to a reality. And at the end of the day, that's what government is about. And the mayor's role is not is not to be a dictator. I mean, it's not to make day to day decisions. And mayor's job is to be a visionary and be able to explain that and clearly communicate what that vision is. And so I'm truly enjoying my time as mayor now.

Brian:

You know, that's actually a good thing to come back to. You mentioned just a minute ago about, you know, kind of the time and how much it actually was to, to invest in that versus your kids and family and other job. Do you have any I mean, is there any, I guess habits or routines that you regularly follow throughout the course of a day for time management or just to kind of keep you sane, maybe some days I don't know? Just kind of curious if there's if there's anything that you do that's you know, important for you day in and day out that maybe could help some others.

Blake:

Absolutely. So on a daily basis, I'm and husband father, landscape architect or planner, Mayor and professor. So every day I'm I'm teaching graduate architecture at Clemson. I'm coming to my what I call my day job as the planning manager for the City of Easley or, or taking phone calls as the mayor and what I have found to be the best for time management is understanding when you're when you are your best. And I'm best at five o'clock in the morning when no one's around. And I can start to respond to emails and talk and start to think clearly and be able to communicate clearly. And so for daily routine, I'm up by five I'm going to hold by six and I'm there until staff starts to get there. And that got kind of goes back to my original statement of a mayor's job is to be visionary and not there on day-to-day operations. 

So I'm making a point not to be in inside of City Hall when Public Works, decisions are being made, or the police chief is making decisions with administrators making decisions make it a point not to be there. And so I go back to that morning time maybe the afternoon for other mayors it may be late at night, others find out when they are their best I can do that with my first two years. I made a commitment to the city that I would be flexible with my time. And so I spent two days a week inside of the office, granted with my door shut so that staff didn't ask for day-to-day decisions. But I spent two days a week in the office for the first two years communicating with the public running the festivals myself closing off the streets almost to the public works guys go out and do other things when we had a festival getting ready to get going. So I was really hands on. And it was almost like the town had another employee for those two years. And then I was able to step back and go back to my to my morning routine.

Brian:

And did you set any you know, coming into being mayor, did you set any personal goals that you want to achieve? And maybe it was because you live there in the past any ideas that you had in your head of things you want to accomplish?

 Blake:

Yeah, so I would always want to start in the middle of the fire. And there's the analogy of the the pot belly stove and is the hottest epicenter and it starts to radiate out to other areas. And that could be true for municipality. So I started that at the heart and soul in the core. And when I would drive through town, there was 100% they can see in our downtown. And I didn't count thrift stores as being a viable retail option. And so when I drove through town, there was nothing there. And so I had a simple goal my first two years as mayor as to have one business on Main Street, that would be a viable business. And so I said, definitely set realistic goals that can be achieved. 

I wanted to do projects that were self funded, so that I didn't have to think about state funds and getting into the politics of your legislative delegation. And our federal funds were met for mega projects that may take three to four years to to change, because what pills are needed something then. And so for me, it was about creating one new opportunity for a business owner. And we were able to do so had a council member that all the food truck that was thinking about opening up. And so the previous administration had built a park. And so we made the conscious decision to have a food truck on Main Street, which was actually our first business that we had, instead of the from, from that food truck, the City Council, we bought a building to make City Hall. So all of a sudden we had that city hall on Main Street. And then came an antique shop. And then came a pizza joint. And then came the mom and pop meat and three restaurant, in came the hair salon. So we were starting to, we started to build upon that one business really, really fast. And so in the course of you know, just three years, in a few months, we're maxed out our downtown, albeit the size of an electronics department in a Walmart. It's full, and we're excited with what we have going on. We're starting to look now. And do we need to build new commercial and retail space? And what's the possibility of having an art gallery when the CD questions that would have never been asked for years ago, were able to ask now, just because that vision was clearly communicated, and the mayor council and staff were committed to implementing that vision.

Brian:

Yeah, that's phenomenal. You guys were able to kind of make those improvements in just a short time frame. And can you talk about that a little bit in terms of how you work with the council and other staff members? How you guys communicate? Is there anything you guys do that, you know, maybe you've seen other places haven't done as well? Or what do you guys think you're doing that's working so great there?

Blake:

Yep. So, um, one of the first things I did is as mayor coming in was that we set a strategic plan for council and staff. And so as many small towns do with with with reduced staff numbers, everybody kind of has to do everything. And that goes all the way up to the elected official level. So we started with a strategic plan account, map out where we wanted to be and how we were going to get there. And so one of the first things we did was a platform municipal association of South Carolina hometown grant, and we applied to do a master plan with our neighbor, the Town of Peltzer, who was in a very similar situation economically as we were both economically depressed. And so from that master plan, we pulled four or five or six goals that everyone can be working on simultaneously, whether the economic development or strategic way funding or implementing division and other facets, we all are working from the same sheet of music in small towns all too many times are working independently from each other, and not working together. And of the 271 municipalities in South Carolina, 200 of them are under 5,000 people. And so there's 200 mayors just like me, that are facing the same problems that can understand that you can work with your neighbor that you're not competing against each other, and that everyone could be successful. 

And for me to sit down and be able to explain that to staff and to counsel that, you know. No one's going to lose their job that was going to lose what their platform was, when they ran for office. We're just going to all singing from the same sheet of music as we move forward. Sometimes the music changes, sometimes you ideas come along with business ventures come in volunteer laugh, and you have to figure out how to pull them in. And that's okay. Because the strategic plan document is intended to be powerful. And at the end of the day, that's what I explain the council and everyone bought into it. And I think many small towns are kind of yearning for that, that leadership or that investment in time where they can see that strategic plan moving forward. And then everyone wants to be a part of it. And so it is a community starts to be able to set this pot belly stove effect. And that reinvigorated the downtown and it started spreading, you started seeing stuff on the outskirts happening, and that's when the community becomes one starts to work together.

Blake:

You mentioned something there, I want to underscore about, you know, obviously the other mayors around the state, where is it about 200 that are probably similar size would you get a chance to communicate with them or get in discussions and kind of that debate stuff, but kind of like learn from each other, and kind of pull some knowledge here?

Absolutely! So all 271 are part of the mayor's association of South Carolina, we get together twice a year. And it's really just to hang out and talk to each other and see and see what issues are being had, whether it's Mayor Bagnal in Summerton, a town about the size of West Pelzner, or whether it's Mayor Benjamin in Colombia or Greenville, we like to tell each other like the kid with with all of them that each municipality while is different, we're all scalable. Mayor White in Greenville has the same issues that I have, just because his police department has 200 and minus six doesn't mean that we still don't have a police chief and a captain and a lieutenant and arrest records to go through and for your request. We we all have the same challenges. They're just on different scales. And one of the one of the most important conversations I've had as a mayor with another one was with Mayor White, and I called him and said, you know, hey, I'd like to get together within just catch up. And that's when I learned that each mayor while they have their own struggles there, each city has those and Mayor White gave me four points for us for a successful city and how to be a successful they are not always preached any other major than a talk to and that's more street festivals have tree lined streets, be a greater voice for all of the residents and have a commitment from the public sector to work with the private sector not against. \

When I heard those four points, I started thinking back to the conversations I've had with you know, Mayor Culbreth in Johnston or Mayor Robertson Anderson, you know, I started calling them and saying, hey, we can let me come to your city and you come to my city and tell me what you see this this wrong so that we can communicate with each other so that we can make all of us great because all 271 on ones have a chance to be successful. And so in my phone right now, I probably have 70 or 80 mayor cell phone numbers that we text all the time from big cities to cities smaller than West Pelzer, and we communicate and again, it's about clearly communicating that vision. And a lot of times mayors will text me with, hey, I had this idea. What do you think? It allows this chance again, to, again, peel back the onion to have conversations to make places better. Even Mayor Amidon in Travelers Rest, which is about 40 minutes from West Pelzer is a thriving small town of about 5,000 people. We communicate on schedules, because we want to make sure that our festival doesn't interfere with what they do. And so as the mayor started to communicate more think you'll see region started the more successful in that regard, is tourism and recreation.

Brian:

You talked about the strategic plan and kind of getting some new things in place downtown and what have you, what do you foresee, I guess for for your town and the size it is and all that kind of the maybe the biggest challenge you guys anticipate over the next couple of years, what what's kind of on the radar that you guys are trying to solve or get ahead of?

Blake:

Yep. So the biggest challenge that we have now is change. And some citizens think that we're we're changing too fast, and other citizens think that we're not changing fast enough.

So that's a challenge for us as we move through probably the next five to 10 years, a lot of capital projects in past three years, internally for moving to the whole lot to taking our old city hall and making it a community center, which was the first from West Hills, or to even purchasing the original City Hall in jail. And it was built around the 1900s. So we've got a lot of projects that are kind of their kind of moving, have moved or are moving in that same direction to make what skills are more of a viable city. But now we're starting to experience growing pains. And for the first time since the 70s, we have new homes that are construction. So we have 2020 new homes being built in on West bells are which for us is, you know, 5% increase in our citizens, which increased burden for some of our services. And so we're starting to look at, you know, how do we provide quality services for quality community. So, again, those growing pains are a little difficult for us, as well as the infrastructure side of things. And for a municipality, who has focused for the previous 50 years on infrastructure being sewer and water kind of convinced council that we need to take a step back from that. And the government's role is not to regulate utility rates, but to let the private sector do that. And so we're looking at ways currently that we may sell our water and sewer system. So again, that our government can get back to the core principle of creating a quality community rather than worrying about the next water meter to be replaced.

Brian:

Is there any advice you'd give to individuals maybe listening that want to get involved more whether it's running for mayor could be for council, it could be for for other committees, but anything you would share? Maybe something to look out for? Or any advice that you could give I guess on that?

Blake:

Yeah, well, and I've always been an advocate for that if you want to, if you want to take your thoughts and your ideas and goals and objectives to the next level, you have to ask yourself, what are you doing to take that next step? And so for those that I think are willing to to put their toe in the politics or think that they want to make a difference, I urge you to ask yourself, what are you doing now to make that difference? I was talking a few days ago with a project we were doing inside the city and someone asked me now what is the mayor's real job. The mayor's real job is to love this community, his or her community and for me, that meant changing my house, changing my front door, changing my driveway, my street before I could think about changing my community and get asked all the time do people get into politics so that they can jump to the next level. 

I think at the end of the day, you continually have to ask yourself, you know, what are you doing to take that next step? So I'm changing my house. I'm changing my street. I'm changing my community. So now I can talk about changing my county or maybe now I can talk about about changing my state or maybe now I can talk about changing my country. And so again, it goes back to what are you doing to take that next step in, in your political career, if that's what you desire to have. And so I've always urge people to get involved with ad hoc committees talk to your mayor's about how you can get involved we have tons of community groups across the upstate in in most municipalities for ways to get involved in may be as simple as leading a Boy Scout troop on an Eagle Scout project, which we did with the talent tells her along the river where it may be working with the school to have a stem stem project and a playground and a born learning trail. There are so many ways to get involved to see where where your strengths fit the most. And it's okay that everyone doesn't want to be the leader or be the strong mayor it takes a lot of people to make an organization run efficiently.

Brian:

So we'll end on this because I'm curious and this could be for anyone I always like to kind of you know have like an open forum type here at the end where it could be some parting words it could just be a quote you live by something can be inspirational who knows that you would share with everyone again could be too specific group or to kind of just you know everyone in general but curious to get your thoughts.

Blake:

So I've always said and this came from Mayor Riley in Charleston that a mayor's job is not day-to-day operations. A mayor's job is to be a visionary and figure out what that vision is and be able to way to clearly communicate it to the people and it's okay to be uncommon. I am I'm different in my approach to staff. I'm okay being the uncommon individual in my city, so that I can make a difference and that's my vision for West Pelzner.

Brian:

Looking like you're having a lot of fun down there. I see you're you know, you're involved in a lot of stuff which is pretty cool. I saw you by the way you were did I see you're the one painting the Clemson Tiger on driveways is that right?

Blake:

I am and so it started off as a humorous Facebook post as mayor I was not possible solution to paint tiger paws on Main Street after Clemson won the National Football Championship and started receiving a lot of hate mail that not everyone was Clemson fans. And so I had to explain to people that I was just being humorous about it. But then I had someone asked me if I would paint one in their driveway. That's actually a really good idea. And so I put out on Facebook, then you know I made a template and I would be painting tiger paws on people's driveways. And I've received thousands of requests to do so been interviewed 10 times on media outlets. I have committed to 176 tiger paws in West Pelzner or Williamston area, and I've even committed to a few friends and former college roommates up in Greenville and over in the Clemson Wahala Seneca area to go and play photographers out there. But at the end of the day, I was able to tell a story that people needed to hear in our current climate that we have that that not everything is divisive on that while the tiger paw for some may mean college football for me as a symbol of love and as a symbol of foundational principles that former college coaches had had brought to the table and lay the foundation at Clemson coach Sweeney told us how to love our neighbor and that's what it's more about. And so I've had a very joyous time in the past few days going out hanging out with people and having conversations and and learning what their life is like what struggles they may have and thank tiger paws in their driveway because at the end of the day a mayor's job is to love their community.

Brian:

Yeah, that's awesome. Well, I'll let you go on that note. It looks like a lot of work to do, so I don't want to take your precious moments there. But thanks so much for taking time out on the podcast. Really enjoyed my chat with you.

Blake:

Absolutely. Thank you.

Brian:

Hey everyone. Thanks for joining in this episode. And we really appreciate if you head over to iTunes. Leave us a quick review give us a rating. We certainly appreciate any feedback you can share so we can make this podcast better each and every episode. Thanks again for listening and I hope you guys have a phenomenal day. Take care.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai
 

Interested in learning more?

Request a demo Talk to an expert
Back to top