Lowcountry Economic Alliance still Beaufort County's recruiter despite setbacks

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comNovember 29, 2013 

Lowcountry Economic Alliance

Despite past setbacks, the Lowcountry Economic Alliance is still in the economic development game and is Beaufort County's go-to organization for business development, county officials say.

Alliance directors Kim Statler and Jessica Bridges are bouncing back from a tumultuous five years, which included the shuttering of the pair's previous economic development group, the foreclosure of the Beaufort Commerce Park and the loss of the alliance's regional status.

"The organization has had hiccups; I have ridden that roller coaster," Statler said. "To me, what's important is our overall vision and strategy for how we create more jobs for the people. Our organization stuff has just been white noise, in my opinion, that's caused a lot of distraction from what we really should be focusing on."

This year, the alliance hired a third employee and helped bring startup manufacturer DUER High Performance Composites from Hardeeville to Beaufort, Statler said.

In September, Beaufort County Council agreed to pay $190,000 to partner with the alliance, including $85,000 to study properties along county highways to create an inventory of possible sites for businesses and a $10,000 promotional video. The county is also working with the alliance to market land it just purchased next to its government center in Bluffton.

The alliance also helped create the incentive package offered this year to Beaufort-based EcoDual, which said it would set up its manufacturing of natural gas conversion kits for diesel engines and create 300 jobs in the city. EcoDual has since said it may not stay in the area, but Statler has said Beaufort County should still be proud of the effort to keep the company here.

"I think (Statler and Bridges') story is that the alliance is probably in the strongest shape it's been in and is postured to achieve success in the next year," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. "EcoDual, if they leave, is a disappointment, but DUER is exciting."

The alliance has been around since 2008, created as an economic development partnership between Beaufort and Jasper counties.

At the same time, Statler and Bridges headed up the now-disbanded Lowcountry Economic Network, which served as Beaufort County's economic development arm. The network folded in 2011 after it went into foreclosure on the Beaufort Commerce Park and County Council declined to buy the property.

At that point, Statler and Bridges were hired to lead the alliance, which stepped in to fill the same role. Because it is an entirely different organization legally -- despite having the same leadership -- it wasn't liable for the network's debt, Statler said.

Then early last year, the alliance went through a series of bylaw amendments to change its board's membership to primarily private investors. Beaufort and Jasper counties disagreed on the changes, eventually leading Jasper County to leave the alliance in May 2012.

"You had politicians who were struggling for power over very little that was happening," Keyserling said. "That put Kim and Jessica in a hell of a position, because they were loyal to working for both (counties.)"

Since then, the organization has picked itself up and kept to its regional mission, but with a particular focus on Beaufort County, Statler said.

"You know, time changes everything, right?" she said. "I think we are spending a lot more time talking about prospects than we are how we are organized."

In early 2012, the alliance contracted with Texas-based Avalanche Consulting to study what kinds of businesses would be best suited for Beaufort County, Statler said. The results showed that manufacturing is rebounding and that Beaufort County is a prime location for back-office, professional services, such as company call centers and information-technology offices, she said.

With manufacturing and professional services in mind, Statler worked with Beaufort County and Beaufort officials to strike deals with Lowcountry manufacturing companies EcoDual and DUER to try keep them in the area.

Statler, Keyserling, the alliance's board, some County Council members and county administrator Gary Kubic believe firmly that with Beaufort County's workforce -- especially the skilled workers brought to the area by the military -- and the correct combination of marketing and incentives, the county is fertile ground for young or expanding businesses.

Despite economic development's rocky history here, the alliance is still key to developing business recruits, County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said.

"They do the pick and shovel work, like vetting businesses -- somebody's got to do all that stuff," he said. "And if they don't do it, then we have to go back to having our own staff do that."

But building a program like that from the ground up would be a huge financial and logistical undertaking, while Statler and Bridges have already had success and know all the relevant players, said County Councilman Jerry Stewart, the council's representative on the alliance's board of directors.

Yes, the Beaufort Commerce Park's foreclosure is a blemish on Statler and Bridges' record, but that isn't the full story, Sommerville said.

"I make decisions every day; some are good and some are not so good. If I got judged by every bad decision I made, then I wouldn't still be in office," Sommerville said. "To make a mistake, I just say, 'Well, I make 'em too.' What's the big picture look like? They're working hard and bringing in potential (business) candidates."

Over the next year, Statler hopes the alliance's partnership with the county will grow. The county used to give $270,000 to the network each year.

County Council still doesn't have a steady stream of revenue for economic development, but it could in the future, Sommerville said.

And as long as diversifying the county's economy and creating jobs are a priority for local officials, the county will depend on the alliance, Stewart said.

"I think they've always been viable in my mind, and our position within the state has been continuously improving," Stewart said. "It's in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but I personally think they don't get the credit they deserve."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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