County must rethink economic development

The folding of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance should have little effect as the organization had little success in luring businesses to the county.

An expensive yet incoherent effort, the nonprofit was to woo businesses to Beaufort County and the city of Beaufort. But success never came. Two prospects touted by the group in the past year -- manufacturers EcoDual and DUER High Performance Composites -- have closed their local operations. And Beaufort's commerce park for which the LEA was supposed to find occupants sits mostly empty.

Indeed, the reasons for the LEA's failure are multi-faceted. Certainly, a divided Beaufort County Council sent mixed signals to the nonprofit as to what its priorities should be. The recession hurt business recruitment efforts. And LEA officials said funding for their work was inadequate. Uncertainty about funding for next year led the nonprofit's board of directors to recently vote to disband.

The decision puts Beaufort County and the city of Beaufort back at square one on attracting high-tech, 21st century companies to their borders. Just how to proceed is up in the air.

We would suggest the following be given serious consideration:

  • Beaufort County should continue to explore a partnership with another economic development group that includes Jasper County, called the Southern Carolina Alliance. The organization has had some success and, because it includes multiple counties, it is eligible for state dollars. Beaufort County may be a good fit for the alliance. 
  • Sit down for a serious talk with the leaders of the Town of Hilton Head Island, the town of Bluffton and the city of Beaufort. All of these local governments have established economic development arms that are working separately to attract new businesses. Opportunities likely exist for these governmental entities to partner and collectively pursue companies that are a good fit for the region. Also, sharing resources will mean a bigger bang for the public's buck. Include the Port Royal leaders in the talks too. The little town may soon see its port redeveloped. Now is the time to discuss luring new businesses to the port that will need complementary facilities nearby. 
  • Look for unique opportunities. The Lowcountry is a special place with an enviably high quality of life, an award-winning school district and technical college system capable of training tomorrow's workforce, a strong military presence and a burgeoning transportation and aerospace industry. Pursue business opportunities that take advantage of what is already here. 
  • Know your constituents. Beaufort County taxpayers are unlikely to embrace public dollars funding work that they believe the private sector should do. They won't applaud the county purchasing private land in the hopes that a private company can one day be lured there. They won't jump for joy if the county builds spec buildings or other amenities for businesses. And they won't tolerate back room deals and secret agreements about how economic development dollars are to be spent. County leaders must keep these unyielding traits in mind with every decision. After all, county leaders' role is to deduce and advocate for constituents' wants -- not to shove the abhorrent piece of broccoli down their throats because it's supposedly good for them. 
  • The desire to foster a more diverse economy and create better-paying, year-round jobs is admirable. But the method by which it is pursued is as important as the goal.