Wednesday, August 20, 2014
The recent announcements that Charleston County plans to leave and Berkeley County plans to hold funding for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance has many wondering what the future approach to economic development will look like in the tri-county area.
For Dorchester County Council, however, the short-term reaction appears to be to stay the course.
Dorchester County Council Chairman Bill Hearn said his feeling is that council is united in its commitment to the alliance, at least for the short term. Individual councilmembers reiterated the commitment the county has made to the alliance, at least for this year. Council included $50,000 in the 2014-2015 budget for the alliance and the feeling currently is that council should keep that commitment, he said.
Council Vice Chairman George Bailey agreed.
“I feel like this is a commitment we made, we put it in the budget, and I feel like we need to live up to it,” he said. “I’m one who doesn’t like to not live up to my commitments.”
What may happen after that is not so clear, Hearn said. There have been issues raised for some time regarding the value and the effectiveness of the alliance by a number of people and entities across the region, he said.
“Bottom line was that we were simply getting a poor return on our investment,” Councilman Larry Hargett said.
Hargett also noted that the recent decisions by Berkeley and Charleston Counties leaves Dorchester “out there alone” as far as local economic development, but Hargett said he does not see Dorchester going back on its commitment for this year and is confident in the county’s economic development ability locally.
“We still have a good economic development office and good relationship with the Department of Commerce,” he said.
Councilwoman Carroll Duncan is also committed to providing the $50,000 already funded for this year, but said the future is uncertain.
When council asked Jon Baggett, director of Dorchester County Economic Development, to look at the CRDA’s record, council members found that most economic development leads came from the state Department of Commerce or from direct contact, she said.
Councilman David Chinnis, who has been raising these and other questions regarding the CRDA for more than three years, agreed that return on investment is a major concern. Another concern is that with the CRDA’s move to bring in new investors, it essentially allowed the same seat at the table to corporate entities paying $50,000 that Dorchester County was funding at more than $170,000.
“That ultimately begs the question ‘what are we actually paying for?’” he said.
Nonetheless, Chinnis agrees there is a place and a need for a regional economic development entity.
“I feel like from my standpoint they’ve had three years to ‘show me the money,’” Chinnis said. “That said, I was and am willing to give them one more opportunity and fund them at $50,000 -- which is the cost of an executive board investor.”
For the price the county’s been paying, Duncan said, the county should have gotten three seats on the executive committee.
The CRDA pointed out that the county has three appointees to the board.
Two of them sit on the executive committee.
Despite the concerns, Hearn did say that CRDA has also excelled in some areas. For example, CRDA has done an excellent job in marketing the tri-county area as a desirable place to do business and it has helped create a diverse economic base in the region, he said.
However, CRDA seems to have allowed relations with the counties to fade. Changing the business model to an investor-type format irked some members. Staff size and salaries for CRDA employees has been another concern, given the questions raised regarding CRDA’s effectiveness in recruiting new industry and jobs, Hearn said. Up until last year, Dorchester County was paying more than $170,000 a year to the alliance. When CRDA asked for more money, the county asked for information on numbers of new industries recruited and jobs created.
That information was not provided, Hearn said.
“We had two meetings with them in 2013,” Hearn said. “I think it’s fair to say that they know what our concerns are.”
Recently, CRDA published statistics regarding its industry recruitment and job creation results. However, analysis by the counties indicates that those numbers are inflated; many of the projects cited in the statistics were actually expansions of existing businesses – in which the alliance had no real involvement, Hearn said.
What approach the county will ultimately take is not yet clear, he said.
“We really haven’t thought about that yet – the regional approach has been the approach that seems to work and we don’t want to abandon that,” Hearn said.
Bailey said he is open to exploring other options and in fact was planning to attend a meeting with Bobby Hitt of the SC Department of Commerce and other tri-county area officials scheduled for Aug. 15.
“Personally, I can’t see that the CRDA has done anything for Dorchester County as far as economic development has gone,” Bailey said. “If the three counties can get together and talk with the Department of Commerce and segregate away from the CRDA, I have no problem with that.
“Personally, I think we’re better off without them.”
Still, council seems to be united in keeping its commitment to CRDA, at least for this year, councilmembers agree.
“I can tell you at this point that council has no plan to come back, revisit the issue and decide whether or not to pull out,” Hearn said. “However, given the events that have transpired, it is inevitable that the discussion will come back up.”