The leader of a bi-county economic-development group said her firm will not renew its contract with the Lowcountry Economic Alliance because relations among the organization's board members are too "unsettled and strained."
Kim Statler and Jessica Bridges of Lowcountry Consulting were working on a month-to-month contract with the alliance, which is governed by a six-member board of representatives from Jasper and Beaufort counties.
Statler is listed on the alliance website as the organization's executive director and Bridges as its director of business development. However, neither were full-time employees of the organization.
Statler is the former executive director of the Lowcounry Economic Network, which also worked in economic development. That organization folded this past year after it went into foreclosure on the Beaufort Commerce Park in northern Beaufort County and the County Council declined to purchase the property.
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Statler's decision to end her work with the alliance came Thursday, according to the time stamp on her email to the board. That's the same day an alliance board meeting was canceled at the last minute because some Beaufort members were unsure about the proper procedure for replacing members.
"As I have said before, this Alliance cannot lead with politics," Statler wrote in the email. "It must lead with sound business strategy from a voice of equality from the board. The events and conversations of late tell us that at this time we do not have a healthy regional relationship."
Last week's last-minute cancellation -- which left some Jasper County members upset because they intended to hear presentations and entertain business prospects -- followed a decision by Beaufort County administrator and alliance board member Gary Kubic to resign from the group.
Unsure how to go about replacing him, Beaufort County's alliance members were asked to suspend activity until the problem was solved, according to Council Chairman Weston Newton of Bluffton.
Several Jasper County representatives and Beaufort councilman and board member Jerry Stewart held and informal meeting Thursday and gave an informational update on the alliance's goals and recent activities. No decisions were made at Thursday's meeting.
On Monday, Beaufort County Council voted 9-1 to ratify the current members under a resolution from 2008 on who can be appointed to the board. Councilman Steve Baer dissented, and Councilwoman Laura Von Harten was absent.Kubic said Monday he still plans to resign but won't leave the board until a replacement is found. He said he wants to resign so he can focus on his duties as County Administrator.
"I'm not trying to be a problem for the alliance," Kubic said. "I hope they can focus on the larger picture of getting things done."
Statler said in the email that her firm will stay until May 31 to roll out the group's new logo and website.
Board members said the decision was unexpected.
"I'm sad to see her go," Jasper County Councilman Marty Sauls said.
Sauls said he did not sense political tension within the group.
"There's none with me," he said. "If there is an issue, it's not with Jasper County, but I don't know what's going on in Beaufort County."
Beaufort councilman and board secretary Jerry Stewart expressed similar surprise.
"It shocked me because I thought things went well Thursday," he said. "Amongst ourselves, we have it worked out now... We need to put this behind us and move forward."
The group is to meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Hardeeville Town Hall. Agenda items include election of a replacement for chairman Gregg Malphrus, who moved to Florida with his construction business, and adopting investor levels and membership requirements.
City of Beaufort Mayor Bill Keyserling said Statler and Bridgeshave been "stellar" in representing their interests in the park, and he hopes the announcement will "wake up" the board.
"I can't commit $10,000 of taxpayer money (for membership) to an organization that has done nothing but fight among themselves," he said. "(Statler and Bridges) were put in a very difficult spot because they spent all their time communicating between the two counties on top of doing the work they were hired to do."