A new economic assessment of Beaufort and Jasper counties paints a mixed picture.
The region lags the nation in job creation, but opportunities for growth exist. Further, a wide majority of the 530 residents surveyed support more funding for economic development.
The study, which will be delivered to the Lowcountry Economic Alliance today, is the first of a three-phase analysis local leaders hope will create a framework for growth.
Staff from two consulting firms -- Avalanche Consulting of Austin, Texas, and McCallum Sweeney of Greenville -- unveiled the data Thursday during a conference call with alliance officials and community leaders.
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Conversations centered around strengths, weaknesses and perceptions of the local economy.
Survey-takers gave the Lowcountry a C-minus for its economic performance over the past five years.
But Avalanche president Amy Holloway said Beaufort and Jasper counties are lagging the national average, at least in terms of employment.
The number of jobs in the two-county region dropped 2.6 percent between 2009 and 2010, and a full 10 percent since 2007, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents said job creation should be the highest priority, and 72 percent support higher funding for economic-development initiatives.
Yet many were concerned that might mean smokestacks and urban sprawl.
"Some people in the community associate economic development with a deteriorating quality of life," Holloway said. "And that's just not the case."
Weaknesses highlighted by the study include the perception that public schools are underfunded and low-performing and concern over aging hotels, cumbersome local regulations and inconsistent development standards.
But the consultants said opportunity looms large, particularly because of the Lowcountry's location in what they called an "aerospace corridor" and between two major ports, Savannah and Charleston.
"You guys are kind of right in their path from both directions -- a great place to be in," said Ed McCallum, senior principal of McCallum Sweeney.
Consultants expect to finish a report on which industry niches the Lowcountry should target by late October.
Final recommendations and marketing plans are expected in January.
Kim Statler of Lowcountry Consulting, which was hired to oversee the study, said she is encouraged by many of the results.
"We're finally to the point where we're putting some structure around what exactly we need to do moving forward," Statler said. "We have seen such a great interest in our region, but we are missing some critical pieces to translate those prospects into job creation."
The alliance, primarily funded by the state, has said the study will cost about $116,900, with $25,000 of that coming from a grant from a group that includes the state's electric power industry.
Beaufort County Council's economic development task force unveiled a separate study earlier this week.
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.