Beaufort News

SC commerce chief: State committed to helping Beaufort, Jasper counties improve economies

South Carolina will help Beaufort and Jasper counties improve their economies, but they need to make difficult decisions to put themselves in position to be helped, the state's new secretary of commerce said Thursday.

Bobby Hitt visited Beaufort as part of a series of statewide appearances since Gov. Nikki Haley appointed him in January.

As a Charleston native and former Columbia newspaper editor who was most recently manager of corporate affairs for BMW Manufacturing Co. in Spartanburg, Hitt has divided his life about evenly between the Lowcountry, Midlands and Upstate.

He said he is committed to helping each community in the state develop "on a pace and in a style in which they want."

Companies will "come to dinner," he said, as long as communities "set the table."

"I will do what I can to make your community better, but I can't do it unless you set the table," Hitt told a group of about 70 people at the Holiday Inn in an event organized by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Lowcountry Economic Network.

The Lowcountry, for example, faces significant challenges in its fight for new business, he said.

There are relatively few sites to show prospective companies, he said, and of the state's 46 counties, Beaufort and Jasper are two of only eight that collect business-license fees, which he said can be "a major obstacle."

Communities that want to attract manufacturers need to have a space for them and infrastructure such as roads and pipes to serve them, Hitt said.

Creating those things sometimes requires local politicians to take risks and make investments that don't generate immediate returns, he said. That can be tricky without raising taxes and fees, which he said also are important to businesses considering moving or expanding.

The balance is not easy to maintain, but South Carolina is succeeding in many cases, he said.

Hitt said the state:

  • Is gradually turning the corner on the recession, with unemployment below 10 percent for the first time in two years.
  • Has attracted investment from 20 of Fortune magazine's 50 most-admired companies in the world.
  • Recruited about 20,000 jobs last year, more than Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia.
  • Recruited more manufacturing jobs last year than the year before, the first time that's happened in about 13 years.
  • The "bones" of his department are good, Hitt said, but its budget and staff are about half what they were five years ago.

    Continuing economic growth will require state and local officials to cooperate more than they have in the past, he said. It also will require clear direction from communities about the kind of place they want to be, he said.

    "I am not trying to tell anyone how to run their communities but here to complement what the community thinks is important to them," Hitt said.