Attendees tell different stories of ‘first’ meeting with Horry County school builder

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Horry County School Board Chairman Joe Defeo gave First Floor Energy Positive an introduction to the public unlike any the public or school staff has seen since. Defeo allowed Robbie Ferris, the company’s CEO, to pitch his school construction company at a board retreat meeting on October 20, 2014.

At the time, most people didn’t know that Ferris had met some of the board members prior to giving his pitch.

Two weeks prior to the board retreat, Ferris and some of his staff traveled to a Santee Cooper office and met with Joe Defeo and vice board chairman Neil James, who works at Santee Cooper. Holly Heniford, who wasn’t yet on the school board but had recently won the Republican primary for a seat, was also there, along with Doug Wendel, the former CEO of Burroughs and Chapin, according to people who were at the meeting. It’s the first meeting between any board members and Ferris that News13 has record of.

“[Ferris] showed proposals of how energy positive works and how it can reduce future operational costs and that’s basically it,” Defeo said. “He just went through a proposal.”

It’s unclear why each person was invited to the meeting. Defeo described it as an “official meeting that people knew about.” However, the board chairman admits the meeting wasn’t publicly announced. “…but the [district] office knew,” Defeo said. He described the meeting as “all 100%.”

The people who were there told different stories of who called the meeting and why each person attended.

Robbie Ferris told News13 in March “somebody” set the meeting up; he didn’t remember who. When asked why Doug Wendel was there since he doesn’t work for the school district, Ferris said he didn’t know, but described Wendel as a “rockstar in the community” and an “advocate for things that are good.”

Holly Heniford, however, said Ferris’ company used Wendel as a middleman to get its proposal in front of the right people. She said Wendel organized the meeting and she didn’t have a role.

Neil James said Defeo contacted him and said Heniford had someone who could talk about energy efficiency. James also said he didn’t know why Wendel was there.

Defeo said he attended after getting a call from Wendel. He said he didn’t think anything of Wendel’s attendance because of his ties to economic development groups in the area. Defeo said the meeting was the first time he ever met Ferris. “…never met him, never emailed him, never had any conversation with him before that time,” Defeo said.

News13 left voicemails with phone numbers listed for Doug Wendel in online databases, but our phone calls haven’t been returned.

In a March 2017 interview, Defeo criticized other companies that eventually submitted proposals for the project because, he claimed, they invited him to lunch. “Well, you know what I told them, if you want the business then you better present something to the selection committee and you better present something to facilities and then to the final board because I’m not having lunch with you,” Defeo said.

News13 brought up the meeting with Ferris at Santee Cooper. “I meet with anybody. I’m meeting here with you. I met with people earlier today that I never met,’ Defeo responded. “There’s a difference between a lunch and an official meeting to show me a plan. And the only reason we had it at Santee Cooper was Neal James was so busy he doesn’t have time to leave and it was a convenient place to do it. Okay? If they wanted to show me a presentation, I’ll see it all day long.”

Ferris emailed Defeo and James three days after the meeting and thanked them. “We stand ready to move quickly with your projects,” Ferris wrote.

Defeo put Ferris on the agenda for a board retreat on October 20. “Very important new information about financing and the building program,” Defeo wrote a few days earlier in an email to board members.

Ferris made a 40 minute presentation about “high performance” and “energy positive schools” at the public meeting.

“Any company can come in and make a presentation…especially on something new,” Defeo told News13.

He shared a proposal that he claimed would save the district $68-$97 million in energy costs over 40 years. “This doesn’t include the revenues that you would generate from the excess power back that you would sell back to the power company,” Ferris said. He cited the company’s “energy positive” school in North Carolina, where the state laws regarding energy buyback are different than those in South Carolina.

Ferris also sold urgency. “Moving quickly can save lots and lots of money,” he said.

Within three weeks, the school board voted to cancel its original school building plan, which came together after years of research.

At the same meeting, board member Janice Morreale motioned for five “high performance energy positive” schools. Member John Poston repeatedly questioned the motion — did the buildings have to generate more energy than they consume, would other options be considered? Morreale paused at one point, and at others, appeared to repeatedly reference the recent presentation from First Floor.

Poston suggested other ideas for energy savings. He questioned whether the board’s motion was too limiting. “…my fear being we’re looking at a single thing. We’re talking about one person at the podium,” Poston said.

Defeo appeared to advocate for the motion and tried to interject at one point as Morreale explained it. He described a scenario where the district could save $1 million per year on energy costs. Defeo also noted the motion didn’t specify which type of energy will be generated.

Poston knew he wouldn’t win the battle. “I can see it on your faces,” he said. “I hope we don’t limit ourselves with this motion going down a single road for a single product without giving ourselves an opportunity to look at a lot of different things.”

The board voted to create the new “high performance energy positive” school construction project.

After receiving proposals from multiple firms, the school board gave First Floor Energy Positive $220 million worth of contracts for five new schools in November 2015. The company submitted the most expensive proposal, which soared past the district’s original budget of $165 million.