Walk the walk on diversifying economy

June 17, 2011 

Heated discussion about shutting down the Lowcountry Economic Network, saving or not saving the Beaufort Commerce Park, duplicative studies initiated by two groups who share a common economic development mission and arguments for and against government's role in economic development bring up the sour note of broken promises and missed opportunity to me and many others.

Recent census data demonstrate a large gap in Beaufort County's population between the age groups of 20 to 24 and 60 to 64. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand this is clearly a consequence of the lack of economic diversity.

Since I was a child growing up in Beaufort, "grown-ups" have given lip service to economic diversification. We heard warnings not to be overly reliant on farming and shrimping, tourism, the military, government jobs and more recently the construction trades.

Those who grow up here and find career opportunities elsewhere leave, hoping to one day be able to afford to retire here. And those who don't have these opportunities, stay and struggle without hope of giving their children more opportunity than they had. It's a huge demographic imbalance -- and we all pay the price.

So I ask: When will someone have the courage to say the emperor wears no clothes? That leadership is avoiding hard decisions, tough choices, and is investing little time or money toward this long-standing challenge.

Some wax eloquent that we have too much government in our lives and that the challenge is for the private sector. I did not hear a peep from those voices when taxes were raised to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for bridges and roads to accommodate the retirement boom?

Our county is perceived as unfriendly to business because our regulatory processes are cumbersome. It shouldn't take longer than 30 days to issue a development permit for a simple industrial building in an established business park. And we shouldn't cause delays for businesses locating to a business park because they didn't select appropriately colored awnings or completely install their landscaping.

In good conscience, I can't wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, so I am calling on you, my colleagues across the region, to bite the bullet, work together, dig deeper into our pockets if necessary and engage the private sector to walk the walk.

Billy Keyserling is mayor of Beaufort.

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