Beaufort and Jasper counties must diversify their economies and attract companies that export products outside the region, according to a report commissioned by the Lowcountry Economic Alliance.
Attracting more of these "primary industries" would create higher-paying jobs, keep more money in the local economy and better insulate the area against economic downturns, the report says.
"We do not have a lot of primary businesses," said Kim Statler, the alliance's executive director. "Most of the businesses we have here are very service oriented and ... dependent on residential development."
The alliance paid $125,000 for the study, which was conducted by Avalanche Consulting of Austin, Texas, and McCallum Sweeney Consulting of Greenville in late 2011. The alliance, created to foster economic growth in Beaufort and Jasper counties, spent an additional $50,000 on a new logo and website.
It may be too soon to gauge the impact the study will have on economic development, alliance board members said, largely because the group's future is uncertain.
State matching funds could be cut by as much as 80 percent, and its two staffers, Statler and director of business development Jessica Bridges, are working without a contract and might leave. The alliance also is still recovering from Jasper County's decision last month to quit the partnership.
"In large measure, the answer to that is unknown now because of state funding and hiring and firming up our staffing needs," said David Tigges, the newly appointed chairman of the group's board of directors.
Beaufort County Council member Jerry Stewart agreed.
"I think we are going to have to let things evolve a little bit (and) see how things move forward," said Stewart, an alliance board member.
While the study's impact is unclear, it does identify a hole in the region's economic makeup -- the heavy dependence on tourism, construction and other service-sector industries.
According to the report, Beaufort and Jasper counties created jobs at a much faster rate than the rest of the country between 1999 and 2007 as those industries took off.
But as the recession took hold, those same industries struggled between 2008 and 2010, and the region lost jobs faster than the rest of the nation.
The consultants suggest highlighting and building on key regional assets -- proximity to ports and highways and a high quality of life, among them -- to balance the economy. Specifically, the report suggests fostering "clusters" of businesses within the light manufacturing, logistics and distribution, back office and information technology, and health care and biotech sectors.
The report describes those sectors as "primary industries" that export goods and services outside of the local economy.
"These exports inject new dollars into the economy, resulting in increased wages and jobs," the report says.
To attract those industries, the consultants suggest creating an inventory of possible locations for future businesses, working with local colleges to train workers and hiring a marketing firm.