New insights can help economic development

Renewed economic development efforts in the Lowcountry must include two key components: balance and accountability.

In the past few weeks, we've begun to see the results of two separate assessments of our economic development prospects from consulting firms hired by Beaufort County and the Lowcountry Economic Alliance. They look at the two-county region of Beaufort and Jasper counties in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The consultants' work offers important insights into how we might bring new and different jobs to the area and turn around a continuing trend of relatively low wages.

Topping the list of attributes for the region are our natural resources and quality of life.

Participants in a survey for the Lowcountry Economic Alliance study rated natural environment, geographic location and lifestyle as the area's top three competitive strengths.

Balance will come if we can maintain those attributes, which set us apart to people who are making decisions about relocating or starting businesses.

Among our other strengths in the two-county region are Jasper County's available land and Beaufort County's work force.

The Lowcountry's top three competitive weaknesses, according to the survey, are career-job opportunities, government-political leadership; and work force-talent.

Among our other weaknesses are perceptions that public schools are under-funded and low-performing, aging resort properties, cumbersome local regulations and inconsistent development standards.

Recommendations from the county study include:

  • Strengthening ties with Jasper County.
  • Improving accountability with better performance measures, such as an annual return-on-investment review.
  • Assessing county permitting and development review.
  • Marketing the county through additional sales missions and trade shows to attract employers.
  • Greater accountability is particularly important given the demise of the publicly supported Lowcountry Economic Network and the Beaufort Commerce Park foreclosure. We went from paying little attention to economic development to being painfully aware of its shortcomings. These studies are a result of that.

    Beaufort County Council's Governmental Committee this past week directed the Lowcountry Economic Alliance to analyze how it could be molded to fit recommendations made in the study commissioned by the county.

    The alliance was founded in 2008 as a partnership between Beaufort and Jasper counties. Its staff was the Lowcountry Economic Network's staff.

    Since the network's demise, the alliance has hired Lowcountry Consulting, a company run by the network's former executive director, Kim Statler, for about $15,500 a month.

    Local officials should be very clear about what they expect in terms of accountability, and so should the private businesses participating in and contributing to this endeavor.

    Most importantly, we should be very careful not to re-create a failed organization in the guise of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance.