Beaufort News

Lowcounty Economic Network officials defend their record on attracting jobs

Lowcountry Economic Network officials are tired of the questions.

And the insinuations.

"It's a real shame we hear all the time, 'Where are the jobs?' 'What jobs?' 'There are none,' " network chairman and Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart said Wednesday. "That's not true. There have been."

In fact, there have been 827 of them by the network's accounting.

Network officials supplied a list last week of businesses the group has helped retain or recruit since 2003.

The network is a public-private nonprofit group created after the county shut down its own in-house economic development department years ago. The county pays the network $270,000 a year for the work it does.

But lately, some residents and county officials have criticized the network, saying it has lured too few companies to a commerce park it purchased in 2006 and hasn't generated enough jobs elsewhere in the Lowcountry.

Questions about the network's performance arose after it asked the county to buy the commerce park, which faces foreclosure because the network can't make the payments it owes.

Network officials fired back last week, saying its detractors ignore the business diversity it has helped bring to the local economy, including Be Green Packaging. The Santa Barbara, Calif., company announced this month plans to create at least 175 jobs and invest at least $7.3 million over five years at the Cypress Ridge business park near Ridgeland in Jasper County.

Network officials say they haven't always trumpeted such accomplishments as loudly as they could have. They say such businesses must be courted, unlike garden-variety retail and service-sector jobs that typically pay little and follow population growth.

Jane Upshaw, the network's treasurer, said she remembers when the arrival of a Walmart Supercenter was hailed as an economic-development victory for the region. Those jobs are valuable and important, she said, but they don't compare to those of Be Green or CareCore National of Bluffton.

CareCore, a health care firm often cited as the Lowcountry's primary economic development success story, moved its headquarters from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., to Bluffton in 2007 in part because the network arranged incentives and spurred state lawmakers to pass a new tax credit for high-tech businesses that move to South Carolina, network officials said.

With 450 local jobs, the company accounts for more than half the network's list of created jobs.

Observers often discount the network's role in landing CareCore because company CEO Don Ryan has ties to the region, but network officials say that's not fair. They argue the network plays a key role in courting companies and assembling such deals.

Upshaw said she "smarts" when she hears people advocate a return to the county's previous approach to economic development.

"We wouldn't have CareCore, and we certainly wouldn't have Be Green, if it weren't for the leadership and the commitment and the strategic thinking that's going on with our staff and with the support of this board," said Upshaw, who has been involved with the network since its inception in 2001 as the Greater Beaufort-Hilton Head Economic Partnership.

Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer, a persistent critic of the network, is not convinced.

When shown the network's list, Baer said he doesn't think it's fair for the network to claim credit for all the jobs at CareCore, which he said was "a clear bird in hand."

"I think most of that would've happened without the network," Baer said.

He said Be Green was "another fairly automatic deal" because the Cypress Ridge park was donated to Jasper County, the company came to an existing building, and received substantial incentives from a utility.

Baer also disputed whether the network should receive recognition for recruiting Carolina Door & Millwork, which planned to bring 50 jobs to the commerce park but hasn't opened a facility there, or 2G Business Development, which plans to create 15 jobs by building a family sports center and designing software.

"I don't think you ought to get credit unless people are working," Baer said.

If the county does buy the commerce park, Baer said, perhaps it ought to gradually pay off the property by keeping a portion of the $270,000 it already provides the network each year.

In theory, Baer said, the county could then give away the land to companies in exchange for job-creation commitments, a process he suspects could be overseen by a single county employee.

"It wouldn't cost the taxpayers of Beaufort County one new cent," Baer said.