2020’s annual member meeting was the most unusual — and successful — event in Marlboro Electric’s history
By Jodi Helmer
With the sun just peeking over the horizon, the atmosphere at Marlboro Electric Cooperative headquarters in Bennettsville was electric as staff prepared to welcome members to the annual meeting October 3.
The morning meeting kicked off with a short speech and prayer from William Fleming Jr., president and CEO of MEC. He encouraged staff to make it a great day.
“Each year, our annual meeting has been better than the last,” he said. “This is the only opportunity we have to see some of our members and, even if it’s behind a face mask, we want them to know that we’re smiling and happy to serve them.”
MEC celebrated its 80th year in 2020. The annual meeting represents a long-standing commitment to serving the local community, and it was important to the staff to make it one for the record books.
Staff had to overcome significant roadblocks to plan and execute the event. The coronavirus pandemic forced MEC to reschedule the meeting from April to October. Hosting a large gathering required special permission from Gov. Henry McMaster’s office. The co-op needed to adjust the meeting format to comply with social distancing and mask requirements.
MEC staff were undeterred. “The staff know how to think outside of the box,” says Sam P. “Bo” McInnis Jr., MEC’s chairman of the board. “Every time we’ve tried something new, it’s worked out perfectly.”
Starting at 9 a.m., a steady stream of cars pulled up to the MEC truck shed, moving through one of six lanes to register—and receive the registration gift of a slow cooker—without getting out of their cars.
MEC staff welcomed 992 members, which was sufficient attendance to establish a quorum and make the annual meeting official.
“We weren’t sure what kind of turnout to expect because of COVID,” McInnis says. “It exceeded our expectations.”
After registration, members drove across the street to a field set up like a drive-in movie theater, with cars parked in rows facing a stage and large LED screen. The band A New Creation provided entertainment, getting the crowd dancing in their cars to songs such as “Stand by Me,” “Lovely Day” and “I’m Blessed.” Instead of applause, the crowd honked their horns to show their appreciation.
Lead singer Dennis Hardison paused the music to take a roll call. As he called out names of towns in the MEC service area—including Clio, Wallace, Dillion, and Bennettsville—a symphony of honking followed, the sounds of horns reverberating in the air to signal the members from across MEC’s service districts.
Members tailgated, setting up lawn chairs near their cars and pulling out coolers filled with food and beverages to enjoy the entertainment and soak up the festive atmosphere.
A New Creation kept the crowd entertained until noon, when emcee Brian Nash, a senior vice president with Marlboro, took the stage to kick off the meeting.
In honor of the 80th anniversary, the co-op played a slideshow with photos from previous annual meetings on the large LED screen. The audio was broadcast through speakers and car radios. From black-and-white images to snapshots from recent events, the montage reminded attendees that MEC members have come together for fellowship and official cooperative business for decades.
Nash also showed a video depicting linemen hanging an American flag. The footage, which rolled while “God Bless America” played in the background, debuted at the 2019 meeting and quickly went viral, racking up 2 million views in a single week.
Members gave the video a standing ovation last year, and the reaction on this October afternoon was just as enthusiastic. Applause broke out and horns honked at the end of the short clip.
Pastor Elder Frederick Canty of New Hill Original Free Will Baptist Church delivered the invocation, which was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem.
McInnis took his place behind the podium to share good news with members: MEC has recorded record rate decreases. Rates decreased 8% in May and an additional 8% in September, making MEC rates the lowest in the state for the past three years.
Fleming took the stage and delivered another welcome announcement: The MEC board and trustees voted to reduce rates an additional 8% from December to February in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rate decreases were just part of the response to the hardships the pandemic has created for some MEC members. The cooperative also suspended disconnects to ensure members were not at risk of losing power during this unprecedented time.
“Marlboro Electric Cooperative has worked hard to adapt to all of the changes that COVID has caused in our economy,” Fleming said.
“It’s part of the service that our members want and expect,” added John Alford, a member of the MEC Board of Trustees for District 5.
Once the meeting was adjourned, attention turned to the raffle. Thanks to sponsors, MEC staff had more than 50 raffle prizes, ranging from a Black & Decker cordless sweeper, Ninja Pro blender, and Yeti Roadie 24 cooler to $100 Walmart gift cards, Apple air pods, and a Weber charcoal grill.
All members who registered were entered into the drawings. In advance of the annual meeting, MEC members also had the option to buy additional raffle tickets for $1, with funds benefiting MEC’s Power to Serve charity.
The biggest draw was for the grand prize. MEC raffled off two four-seater utility vehicles for the first time. The winners could choose between a Polaris Ranger or $8,000 in cash.
To maintain social distancing, winners honked their horns to alert staff of their locations.
Linemen drove golf carts and side-by-side vehicles through the rows of cars to deliver prizes.
Alford says he missed the interaction with members, but was thrilled with the success of the event.
“The staff worked day and night to pull it off and, like everything they do, the event was first class,” he says. “I had no doubt it would be successful, and it was.”