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Banking powerhouse Darla Moore is plowing new fields and putting her money where her boots are—on the ground
Darla Moore is many things. She’s smart, driven, rich, decisive, funny, successful, Southern, focused, powerful, generous, rural, worldly, daring, optimistic, unflinching, a decent golfer (with new access to a pretty decent golf course in Augusta), but she is not patient. And not exactly tolerant of mediocrity either.
Being from South Carolina, where change tends to be dreadfully slow and mediocrity in many sectors (education and economic growth, for example) is generally dreadful, can be a bit of a challenge for an impatient woman of exceedingly high expectations. So when she’s tired of waiting around for politicians to act, or schools to improve, or economic tides to turn, Moore does what her Lake City, South Carolina, farming ancestors did—she digs in.
In 1998, Moore dug in at her alma mater, the University of South Carolina (USC), when she believed the state’s higher education system needed an urgent and hefty shot in the arm—a $25-million shot to be exact—and founded the Moore School of Business to improve South Carolina’s economic competitiveness. Since then, she’s invested an additional $45 million in gifts and pledges to USC. In 2003, Darla dug in at Clemson to help bolster the state’s education system by funding improved teacher preparation—this time through a $10-million gift to the Clemson School of Education, now named the Eugene T. Moore School of Education in honor of her father, a Clemson alum who was a public school teacher, coach, and principal. “My passion is South Carolina, particularly my home area, and raising the bar for our performance,” she says in a Southern drawl that’s equal parts sorghum and straight-talk. “The worst of our state
often gets showcased, and we don’t get the opportunity to showcase the best of ourselves, which far outweighs the absurd things that get featured.”
With two current initiatives—the Charleston Parks Conservancy (CPC) and this month’s inaugural ArtFields, billed as an “Epic Southern Artfest” in Lake City—Moore is looking more innovative agrarian visionary than high-falutin’ financier. These days, the part-time Charleston resident is focusing her energy less on boardroom wheeling and dealing and more on grassroots creating and seed-planting. In Lake City and in Charleston, she’s cultivating change and economic revitalization, literally, from the ground up.
Darla Moore’s deep pockets are matched only by her deep love for her home state, and in particular for the small town where six generations of her family have plowed and planted the loamy Pee Dee soil. Moore maintains a Lake City residence—the same home, in fact, where her grandparents lived on the family’s farm—and there she has turned the former tobacco, cotton, and soybean fields into a horticultural haven. The Moore Farms Botanical Gardens boasts 5,500 species of
native flora and Southern heritage plants, as well as many non-natives from all over the world, grown on 35 acres of spectacularly designed landscapes, lush meadows, and wistful vistas of magnolia and green pine. Creating a place of stunning beauty and bright-blossomed pride for neighbors would be enough for most of us (the gardens are open to the public on several dates throughout the year as well as by appointment), but Moore saw that it could be even more and added a scientific research dimension, developing a horticultural database of 5,000-plus cultivars grown on the property. “I wanted to demonstrate what former farm lands could become, that it could be a showplace for botanical diversity,” she says.
Beyond the gardens, however, the rest of Lake City (population roughly 6,500), a forlorn railroad and farming town that was once the state’s largest strawberry producer and home of the world’s largest green bean market, has in recent years been more a showplace for what happens when interstates bypass old crossroads, jobs ship overseas, young people flee for better careers, tax revenues dry up, and hope seems as scarce as lakes in Lake City (ironically, there are none).
But Moore didn’t get dubbed “The Toughest Babe in Business” or become the first cover girl for Fortune magazine by shrinking from daunting challenges. She’s a strategic risk taker. A focused and intent game changer. She made millions in the late 1980s by leveraging distressed properties and elevating the bankruptcy business, using her savvy debtor-in-possession acumen, into a major profit line for Chemical Bank in New York; she knows how to take a liability, whether a distressed property or loss-heavy profit-and-loss sheet, and transform it. So why not a distressed, downtrodden, rural town?
“Darla feels strongly that there are assets in Lake City and in similarly struggling rural towns—the question is how to convert these toward becoming an economically vibrant city,” says Moore’s colleague and friend Jim Fields, who serves as director of the Palmetto Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to promoting prosperity across South Carolina (the institute is bankrolled by its board of directors, of which Moore is chair). Yes, Lake City has plenty of residual charm from its 1910-era homes that folks haven’t had the resources to tear down and replace with “tacky tract houses.” Yes, there’s an adorable main street and quaint, if empty, storefronts with plenty of nostalgic appeal, but arguably Lake City’s biggest asset is the indomitable will of Darla Moore.
For years now, Lake City has been the Palmetto Institute’s petri dish, and Moore the mad scientist. She helped start the Lake City Community Foundation and created the Lake City Partnership Council, which has invigorated the Boys and Girls Club and a new Young Professionals group. Fearless, pragmatic Moore has taken on the Lake City School Board: “You mean to tell me that because you are poor, you cannot learn? Is that what I just heard from you, the school board?” Moore challenged elected school officials when they claimed that poverty was the barrier to improved performance. “People would rather make excuses than make changes. It’s always ‘We don’t have enough money,’ but with that attitude, you can have all the money in the world and not make any progress,” Moore says. “We need to be looking for innovation and reform and embracing the reality of these people’s lives.”
In the innovation realm, Moore and the Palmetto Institute launched a “gargantuan effort” to bring Teach for America to South Carolina, which she and Fields accomplished in a record-breaking two-year time frame. (Moore serves on the nonprofit’s board and is one of its largest donors through the Rainwater Charitable Trust.) At first there was significant resistance to bringing in the competitive national program that attracts top recent college graduates to teach in some of the country’s toughest schools, but now school districts across the state are clamoring for more Teach for America teachers, according to Fields. It’s a pattern that Moore knows well. “At first there’s enormous resistance, and you just start chipping away. Then you get your foot in the door, and it’s a positive experience, then you’re embraced,” she says. “Most people back down in the early stage of resistance, but not us!”
Moore’s backbone is as strong as her vision is clear. One gets the sense that her beauty-pageant looks have been an effective foil for her feminine ferocity and business acumen. “My years in the world of finance gave me the opportunity to observe such a broad range of human and financial behavior. I developed a vast font of experience in seeing how things worked and how they didn’t work,” Moore says. “I’ve worked with a lot of badly distressed companies with poor management and too much debt, and I had to look through the smoke and fog and chaos galore to see a clear path and know where I had to go.”
Arts in Bloom
This April in Lake City, Moore sees a “clear path” that will lead 400-some artists and hundreds, perhaps thousands, more visitors through 42 venues throughout the town. ArtFields is Moore’s ambitious blowout party, if you will, a grand open house for an entire town. Her hope is that an über arts and entertainment festival will help till fertile soil and sow seeds of enterprise and creativity, yielding crops of sheer inspiration in these fallow farmlands. “The event will highlight Lake City and the Pee Dee and will raise the bar for arts in South Carolina,” Moore affirms.
When a call went out to recruit submissions from artists in 11 Southeastern states, in hopes of getting 400 entries to be exhibited at ArtFields from April 19 to 29, more than 770 flooded in. Prize money of $100,000 is up for grabs. This will be big—the largest art competition in the Southeast. The heftiest cash prize. There’ll be music, food, a gonzo farmers market, extra extravaganza. True to form, Darla Moore doesn’t do small.
But will the experiment work? Will visitors coming to see art be seduced by a quaint town’s quiet charms and stay a while, spend some tourism bucks? Maybe buy one of those 1910 fixer-uppers? Start a small business? A new hotel is already slated to open soon, a hopeful sign. ArtFields takes its lead from a similar event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that had positive economic development outcomes, but the net gain for Lake City, besides the prize winning artworks that will stay in the city’s public spaces, remains to be seen. “Dr. George Washington Carver said, ‘Where there is no vision, there is no hope’,” says Lake City mayor Lovith Anderson Jr. “The people of Lake City and the surrounding communities are the beneficiaries of the hope and promise and progress which have sprung from the visionary effort and leadership of Darla Moore.”
Central Park South
Though Charleston is by no means as distressed as Lake City, Moore has delved into asset enhancement here as well. She can’t help herself. She and her husband, billionaire deal-maker and investor Richard Rainwater, bought a home in Charleston in 2002, to enjoy the reprieve that the Holy City offered from New York’s fast pace and from the constant activity at the Lake City farm. “My husband was the one who first noticed how tired many of Charleston’s public spaces were in contrast to the beautiful architecture,” Moore says. When he offhandedly suggested that maybe she could “do something about that,” she got interested. “I thought that would be exciting,” recalls Moore, who had in mind the transformation she had witnessed during her years in New York when the Central Park Conservancy converted the once-dingy and dangerous urban park into a national jewel. “It’s now a magical, magical place,” notes Moore. “And here in Charleston, we can do the same thing. The peninsula is not unlike Central Park if you take all these pocket parks as a whole.”
What Rainwater had in mind was that Moore might add some window boxes around town. “My husband is one of the legendary investors in this country’s history, one of the most brilliant geniuses in his field, but I am a bigger visionary than he is,” she says. “‘A window box? Really?’ I asked him. ‘And you think that’s going to raise the bar for the town?’”
Instead, Moore’s vision is the Charleston Parks Conservancy (CPC), a not-for-profit she created with a mission of connecting people to their green spaces. “It’s got to be a public-private partnership, it’s got to be integrated with the city, you have to bring together your strengths and resources, and the community has to be involved, the people have to have a stake,” Moore says, sounding more like a grassroots community organizer than boardroom exec, which, in fact, is more or less how she prefers to work these days.
To date, 14 out of 120 parks throughout Charleston have been renovated and polished up. The conservancy’s biggest effort thus far, a major renovation of Colonial Lake’s green space, will launch next spring. The project design has been completed, and the city and CPC have committed funding to get it done—around $5.5 million is the estimated price tag to transform that area. “It’s reinvesting in an asset,” says Moore. “A capital investment for Charleston. This is about maintaining and upgrading one of the great assets of this state—I always look at it from an economic standpoint,” she adds.
Raising the bar is what Darla Moore is all about, whether that bar is relative to economic prosperity; the arts; education; or the sheer joy, pride, and pleasure that come from beautiful public spaces. “She has changed the conversation in South Carolina from low achievement to higher achievement. The Darla standard is simply excellence and nothing else,” says Fields. Her good friend and Charleston neighbor Charlotte Beers, who also once graced the cover of Fortune, confirms, “Darla never does anything halfway.”
And nor does she just give money and walk away, leaving others to get the work done. When ArtFields kicks off this month, Moore will be there, but not necessarily front and center. “I’ll be a volunteer doing whatever the team tells me to do, and so will my sister, who is coming in from Boston,” says Moore. “I’m a big believer in boots on the ground.”