Inman Mayor Cornelius Huff grew up in the small Spartanburg County mill town during a time when skin color determined whether he could use the front door or the back alley entrance of a downtown business.
As an African-American, walking down Main Street also wasn’t an option. At 16 or 17 years old Huff remembers being told there’d never be a black person in leadership in his city.
“That was a statement that was made and that stuck with me,” Huff says.
All of that has since changed.
Huff not only became Inman’s first African-American City Council member, but after 12 years in that role was sworn in as mayor in July 2014. Huff is also proud to say the city recently hired its first woman in an administrative role – Missy House, former representative for Trey Gowdy for 14 years who is now in her third week as city administrator.
The city is undergoing enormous physical revitalization under Huff’s leadership, including the revamp of Leroy Mathis Park, the Inman Mills multifamily project with the new Mill to Main greenway initiative, streetscaping, library renovations, and numerous vacant downtown storefronts ready for restaurant and retail tenants. House’s economic development experience will be a key factor in furthering and completing these in-progress efforts.
Huff says his late father, who served in the United States Army in Korea and eventually settled in Inman after meeting his wife there at a tent revival service, used to preach to him about initiating changes in his life.
“He said, ‘Son, in order to make a change in your life you have to get yourself in position to make the change,’” Huff recalls. “You got to put yourself in the position that can actually make the change.”
Huff says his father pounded that message into his head.
“He saw something that I didn’t know about me.”
Huff’s father lived long enough to see his son become mayor.
“Before my dad passed away in 2015, he said, ‘You far exceeded my expectation of where we are,’” Huff says.
Huff admits he even exceeded his own.
“’On the streets that we couldn’t walk down, you’re the guy who’s in charge of making sure that never happens again,’” his father told him.
‘The vision died’
Throughout the years, Huff saw his hometown regress from thriving mill village to an empty Main Street in the early 1990s.
“I watched the furniture stores leave … I watched all this stuff leave. It just died away. And I watched the mill close. When that closed, it hurt Main Street. That’s pretty much what killed Main Street. The people aren’t here anymore. So when that died, the vision died. There was nothing else left and nobody had a vision,” he says.
And to him, it didn’t seem anyone cared to do anything about it.
“No one wanted to advance to go any further,” he says. “It is like whatever happens, happens. And it just took a younger generation to come back in and say, ‘OK, I’m not gonna let this happen.’”
Change of position
Huff has spent his life and career serving his community, with more than 30 years of experience as a firefighter, first volunteering at 12 years old, and paramedic. But he didn’t plan to get involved in politics until he became upset that changes he saw as necessary weren’t being made.
When Huff found out that two City Council seats were available, it was too late to get on the ballot. He marched straight to the voter registration office to find out what he could do about it.
“A guy says, ‘You know you can run as a write-in candidate, right, and you don’t have to pay anything? You don’t have to do anything, just write you in,’” Huff says. “He told me the wrong thing.”
His determination fueled, he went door-to-door with his two young daughters to ask voters to write him in. It worked, and he won by a landslide, he says.
“I found out then it was possible,” he says.
Huff sat on the council through three mayors, but that too eventually became unsatisfactory with a strong mayor/weak council structure of government.
“I’ll give you some instances where we would have our City Council meetings, make a decision council voted on, and the mayor wasn’t happy about it,” Huff says. “The next morning he’d come here and put his stamp of approval on what he wants to do. And he had all authority to do that because he had strong-mayor form of government.”
After more than a decade of that, he’d had enough and decided to run for mayor.
“I said, ‘Oh, we have to change that,’” he says. “That’s the first thing. That’s one of the things that I ran on.”
The form of government was put to a referendum and the city voted to change it to a strong council by an overwhelming majority, Huff says.
“So that took all the weight off of me and allowed me to do what a man should do, and that’s get out here and be the public figure and support the town and raise the town and let the City Council as a whole make the decision,” Huff says.
Huff’s vision? To bring businesses downtown that will draw residents back, rather than forcing them to downtown Spartanburg or other areas in search of restaurants or retail.
Attracting a successful brewery or restaurant is his main priority based on public feedback. Half a dozen properties on Main and Mill streets currently listed for sale or lease could house such a business.
“We are so close to getting it,” Huff says. “Mmm hmm. I can smell it.”
The more large manufacturing facilities that open in Spartanburg County, the more potential residents who could be drawn to a town like Inman.
“And that’s what I’ve been focusing on, making sure that we have a thriving downtown with absolutely everything they need to keep them here,” Huff says.
The Inman Mills revitalization project, now called The Lofts at Inman Mills, began leasing this month and has the potential to bring 450 new residents to the city.
Connecting the lofts and Main Street is Huff’s newest initiative, called Mill to Main.
“We’ve got to beautify Mill Street all the way up to Main Street to make it walkable, bikable, absolutely pedestrian friendly to make it easy for people to leave that mill, come up Main Street for a reason, because I have a nice place to eat. I have a place to sit down, have a nice cold beer, and have fellowship and friendship,” he says.
Just how all of these projects get funded, first of all, and executed, secondly, is no small task, even for a mayor who described himself as a “fireball,” blasting through the frequently slow government processes. He notes that approach doesn’t always work.
“I never thought it would take us four years to get a new park, for us to get renovation down here, but we have it,” Huff says.
He says building a team of people who want to see success was key.
“And that’s what it took to get me to where we are today is getting the right people on board and people who care,” he says.
He’s also enlisting the local youth, working with high school juniors and seniors in what he’s named the Mayor’s Youth Council, to get involved in organizing city events and understanding their role in the continued development. It’s a successful model he’s promoting in other South Carolina municipalities, as well.
All of the projects so far have been made possible by state and federal grants with no cost to taxpayers. It’s important that continues, Huff says.
That’s where House, the new city administrator, comes in. The wife of an entrepreneur and small-business owner and herself a former representative for Trey Gowdy, her economic development contacts and background and ability to multitask will be key for Inman’s continued growth, Huff says.
House says the incentive they’re pushing right now is for facade improvement to attract new businesses to vacant storefronts. She’s on the hunt for more grants now that she’s getting more familiar with the job and wants to see a coffee shop, wine shop, brewery, and restaurant move in sooner rather than later to jumpstart the traffic flow.
“It’s up to me to carry out what City Council hands down,” House says.