Beaufort County may form economic partnership with Sumter

cconley@islandpacket.comFebruary 6, 2013 

Lowcountry Economic Alliance

Nine months after its alliance with Jasper County imploded, Beaufort County's economic-development agency is considering a new partnership with a similar group from Sumter County.

The new entity, called the Beaufort and Sumter Economic Alliance, or BASE, would be composed of members from the Lowcountry Economic Alliance and the Sumter County Development Board.

The Lowcountry alliance is Beaufort County's official economic-development agent. It's two employees work to attract businesses and jobs to the area.

"We complement each other very well," Kim Statler, executive director of the Lowcountry alliance, said this week. "We are both military communities and we both have similar assets, so we can strategically market in a lot of the same ways."

There is also a financial incentive to joining forces. As a multi-county alliance, the new entity likely would qualify for additional state funding.

Last year, the legislature approved almost $4.5 million in matching funds to be split between the six regional economic-development agencies across the state. However, the seven counties that are not part of a regional group -- which included Beaufort and Sumter counties -- split just $525,000 in matching funds.

The Lowcountry alliance became an alliance of one last May when Jasper County bolted to join the Southern Carolina Alliance. The Sumter development group also operates independently after leaving the Central S.C. Alliance.

"It affords us the opportunity to be a true alliance and get state support through the (S.C. Department of Commerce) that we would need," said Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who also is a Lowcountry alliance board member.

"They were pretty much in the same position we were as far as having no partner, so it made some sense," Stewart said, adding that the distance between the two counties is less important than their shared interests and makeup.

There is no rule requiring economic alliances be composed of adjacent counties. For instance, McCormick County is part of the Central S.C. Alliance even though it does not border any other counties in that alliance.

Sumter County, which is about 25 miles east of Columbia, has about 107,000 people spread across 723 square miles. Its population is younger and more diverse than that of Beaufort County, which has about 165,000 people living on 525 square miles. Shaw Air Force Base, home of major U.S. Army and Air Force units, also is in Sumter County.

Statler believes the presence of large military installations in both counties makes the partnership a natural fit. Both regions have similar infrastructure, already seek similar businesses and have a similar labor force with many military members transitioning out of the service, she said.

The fact that they are "not in each other's backyard" means they can support each other without competing for the same businesses, she added.

David Tigges, chairman of the Lowcountry alliance's board, said the new partnership could help protect bases in both communities.

"We know that ... federal defense spending cuts are coming and there will be fewer military bases in the U.S.," he said. "So it's somewhat of a play on that as well, that you are trying to make those bases more valuable by having private industry that coordinates with those bases."

The new entity has already been created, and bylaws describing membership, funding and other details have been drafted but not yet approved, Tigges said.

A resolution supporting the new arrangement was endorsed this week by a Beaufort County Council subcommittee. A final vote is expected next week. Sumter's county council also is expected to vote next week, Statler said.

Sumter officials referred questions on the proposed alliance to Jay Schwedler, president and CEO of the Sumter County Development Board.

Multiple attempts Tuesday and Wednesday to reach Schwedler were unsuccessful.

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