Gov. Haley gives high marks to Beaufort County economy

dburley@islandpacket.comNovember 4, 2013 

Gov. Nikki Haley praised a crowd of Beaufort County officials and business leaders Monday for "doing everything right" to develop the local economy -- citing tourism, dredging in Sea Pines and the addition of JetBlue flights at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport as examples of positive economic growth.

Haley spoke before more than 770 people at the 18th annual Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce State of the Region luncheon.

She was followed at the podium by Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville. Each echoed Haley's praise of recent developments in the Lowcountry.

On JetBlue, Haley said the new nonstop daily flights from Savannah to Boston and New York, which begin in February, align with her goal to expand infrastructure and transportation in the state.

Along with new Southwest Airlines flights announced for Charleston and Greenville, Haley said the JetBlue flights from Savannah's airport, which is near the S.C. border, "shows CEOs around the country that there are direct flights coming into this state."

She likened the flights to the state General Assembly setting aside $300 million to deepen the Port of Charleston by 50 feet -- a commitment by the state to improve its business foundation, she said.

Haley was particularly bullish on tourism in southern Beaufort County, telling the audience that area resorts expect to beat last year's 55 percent occupancy rate.

"We're looking at 2.4 million visitors in the next year, creating more than $1 billion in economic impact," she said of the Hilton Head-Bluffton area.

She said more manufacturing in Beaufort and Jasper counties would strengthen the economy, especially during the tourism offseason.

"It doesn't mean it has to be in the middle of the island," she said of industry. "But we need more jobs in the area to increase stability."

Haley mentioned the Sea Pines dredging project as a way to spur more tourism and create more jobs.

"She recognized the importance early on of dredging Harbour Town for residents, visitors and businesses of the island," said chamber CEO Bill Miles.

Laughlin, the island's mayor, spoke after Haley and said he was excited about the upcoming project to unclog waterways, which was finalized in October. The plan calls for 300,000 cubic yards of muck to be pumped to a 100-acre site at the mouth of Calibogue Sound, about a mile from the end of the island.

"There's some much-needed work about to get underway," he told the crowd.

Laughlin touted Hilton Head's $25 million beach renourishment project as a success and said developing land the town owns near Coligny Circle is a priority.

"This land currently contributes nothing to the vibrancy of the area," he said. Laughlin said a University of South Carolina Beaufort satellite campus, which would house the college's hospitality degree programs, would be a natural fit near the resorts.

"It would bring future leaders of hospitality to where Charles Fraser (founder of Sea Pines) created a resort community based on hospitality," he said.

Mayor Lisa Sulka patted Bluffton on the back during her speech, giving accolades to the town's small-business incubator as evidence that the town is moving forward -- fast.

"Business is percolating in Bluffton," she said.

Council Chairman Paul Sommerville touted traffic projects underway in Beaufort County and said the widening of U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton should be completed this month.

"If a hurricane or natural disaster hit, these roadways would be essential," he said.

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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