Local governments are most successful in luring industry when they excel in the basics: keeping their tax rates competitive, investing in water lines, roads and other infrastructure that industry relies on, ensuring local schools are graduating a competent workforce and electing business-friendly leaders who work to cut through the red tape for job producers.
If the basics are in place, the private sector, with private money to risk, will come calling and existing businesses will flourish. All businesses, large and small, benefit.
That's why we're not convinced that Beaufort County -- which lacks the expertise of the private sector regarding development deals -- needed to spend more than $1 million for 7.7 acres next to its government center on Bluffton Parkway. The hope, according to county leaders, is to attract a call center, information-technology office or other back-office professional services operations, bringing jobs and tax revenue to the county.
No such business has yet been identified -- another troubling aspect of the plan, particularly when taxpayers are bearing all of the risk. But a study by the Lowcountry Economic Alliance found that the county is an ideal spot for such business ventures.
This could prove a costly venture with no guarantee of success. Already, $1.15 million has been spent to purchase the property. County leaders point out the lion's share of the money came not from the taxpayers but grants from private companies -- $400,000 from Palmetto Electric Cooperative and $325,000 from Hargray Communications.
It's still public money that could have been used for other purposes. Since 1996, state law has allowed utility companies and electric cooperatives to redirect funds that would have gone to the state in the form of fees to local infrastructure projects by municipalities and counties.
In other words, money the companies were required to pay to the state is instead going to the speculative land purchase. And when a business builds on the land, the utility and cable company will benefit, gaining a new customer.
But will taxpayers benefit? That will likely be impossible to accurately gauge. Such analysis never seems to interest local governments once they cut the yellow ribbon at the ground breaking ceremonies of businesses they attracted.
And the land's purchase price is just the start of the spending. More money will likely be needed to identify prospective businesses and to create incentives to lure them in.
Beaufort County's recent track record also gives us pause.
It promised the unusual incentive of an $850,000 piece of equipment to EcoDual, a local company that makes conversion kits so diesel trucks can run on a mixture of diesel and natural gas. Then, the company announced it would continue to consider incentives from other areas and might leave the county altogether.
Certainly, the county does not bare all of the responsibility for the deal possibly falling through. EcoDual officials said a management shakeup changed its long-term plans.
And to the county's credit, it has not yet purchased the pricey piece of equipment.
But the situation does not engender confidence in the county's ability to successfully close development deals.
In fact, the bad news came just seven weeks after a public ceremony during which county, state and other officials applauded the EcoDual deal.
These leaders seemed very sure of success at that time -- as they do now.
We wish Beaufort County luck in finding a company that fits the bill now that money has been invested.
But future efforts should focus on improving the county's business environment, not buying land, equipment and other items for businesses that may never show up or may decide to leave. The taxpayers deserve better.