Alliance not only answer to business development

It's hard to get excited or alarmed about the possible demise of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance.

Based on past performance, it's unlikely many of us would notice the disappearance of this two-county operation, whose aim is to attract business prospects to this part of South Carolina.

What people in the economic development game might miss is the state funding a regional alliance can bring. The Lowcountry Economic Alliance received about $600,000 in state and matching private funding this past fiscal year.

Jasper County officials are considering pulling out of the nascent, second incarnation of this 4-year-old group. The alliance has had difficulty getting new bylaws approved by both counties; recruiting private-sector participants has been slow to start.

Jasper officials met last week with representatives of Southern Carolina Alliance, which works to attract businesses to Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton and Hampton counties.

If Jasper County pulls out of the local alliance, Beaufort County has a couple of choices. It could re-create its own economic development entity, perhaps a coalition that includes municipalities and private businesses. Or it, too, could join the Southern Carolina Alliance. Within any alliance, Beaufort County would have to make sure its house was in order to attract new or expanding businesses.

What constitutes the best economic development course for Beaufort County is not clear. For many years, we've relied on tourism and residential development to lift our fortunes, and they have had a big impact. Now, we want to branch out, but how and to what?

Perhaps Bluffton is on to something with its business incubator, which it formally opened this past week at Care Core National's headquarters in Buckwalter Place. The Don Ryan Center for Innovation is the home for four start-up firms in the digital media, biotech and nutrition sectors. The center was formed as a partnership between the town and Clemson University, which is developing at least three other incubators across the state in non-metropolian areas. Bluffton's is the first facility to open.

In addition to office space, the businesses get mentoring services and help with such tasks as developing a business model, marketing and sales. The hope is that the support will put these companies on their feet so that new enterprises can take their place in the center. The town's budget for the coming fiscal year so far includes $154,000 to pay for operations and an employee's salary at the center.

How and when this logistical and financial support translates to employment opportunities isn't spelled out, but at least it's a concrete endeavor with measurable outcomes.