Economic development ready for good reboot

A fresh start to regional economic development efforts might be helped by staff's departure from the Lowcountry Economic Alliance.

Kim Statler, who was executive director of the now-defunct Lowcountry Economic Network, announced recently that her company would not renew its month-to-month contract with the alliance.

While continuity has its virtues -- and Lowcountry Consulting's Statler and Jessica Bridges offered that -- economic development in this region has not succeeded as hoped. The network folded last summer because its efforts to recruit businesses to its industrial park in northern Beaufort County largely failed and the property ended up in foreclosure. (We hope the city of Beaufort, which has annexed the park and plans to buy it, has better luck; we're just not sure how it will turn around years of failure.)

Beaufort County particularly has tried several iterations of economic development models without much to show for it. It may just be time to shake things up, and new staff and new perspectives could make a difference.

Efforts to come up with a new working model for the two-county alliance have faltered so far. Its board is composed of six members split between Jasper and Beaufort counties. Two are elected officials, two are county staff members and two are business people. The alliance provides a vehicle for receiving state economic development help.

The group has had difficulty getting new bylaws approved by both counties; recruiting private-sector participants has been slow off the mark. Officials from the two counties got in a bit of a kerfluffle recently when an April 19 meeting was canceled because Beaufort County needed to regroup on its appointments to the alliance. Jasper County officials were not happy because they had invited some business people and mayors to the meeting. People showed up even though the meeting had been canceled.

After the meeting, Statler notified the alliance board her company was done.

"As I have said before, this alliance cannot lead with politics," Statler wrote in an email. "It must lead with sound business strategy from a voice of equality from the board. The events and conversations of late tell us that at this time we do not have a healthy regional relationship."

Unfortunately for those who want to keep politics out of this process, government funding, tax incentives and elected officials are involved. How do you keep politics out of an organization that involves two counties, a half-dozen municipalities and competing business interests?

Beaufort County Council has resolved its issues with alliance appointments. On Tuesday, the board delayed voting for a new chairman after Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling asked for more time for municipalities to appoint their representatives. Keyslering said they want to appoint private-sector people to represent them in the organization.

That could help the overall process. Elected officials probably shouldn't recruit prospects, as well as negotiate and approve incentives packages. Some degree of separation -- and objectivity -- would better serve the public. We see this type of conflict when elected officials negotiate agreements with developers. Rare is the official who votes against a contract he helped write.

And experts brought in to evaluate the area's economic development efforts emphasized the need to get more private-sector involvement and greater accountability. Perhaps it's time to review again that paid-for advice and make sure we're on track.

Neither Beaufort County nor Jasper County can afford to waste time or money.