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As the Jasper County Council decides whether to remain in the Lowcountry Economic Alliance or align with another economic-development group, several Beaufort County officials have indicated they'll soldier on even if their neighbor leaves the alliance.
Several Jasper County Council members said this week they don't believe the public-private partnership with Beaufort County is working. On Wednesday and Thursday, they heard a pitches from a similar, 36-member group that includes Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton and Hampton counties.
"I'm ready," Jasper Councilman Henry Etheridge said after the Southern Carolina Alliance's presentation. "We need to move forward."
Jasper County Council could vote to bolt at their council meeting Monday if they reach consensus, according to alliance board member and Councilman Marty Sauls. The Lowcountry Economic Alliance was formed in 2008 as a way to secure job-growth funding from the S.C. Department of Commerce. Three members from each county sit on the alliance's board of directors.
Several Beaufort County members said they hope Jasper County remains in the fold, but would try to keep the alliance going if it leaves.
"It's still an alliance, and it will still focus on Beaufort and the Lowcounty," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
The city of Beaufort is considering membership and Keyserling has urged other municipalities to join, too. He said if Jasper County Council pulls its support, Ridgeland and Hardeeville might still sign on.
The alliance is an off-shoot of the now-defunct Lowcountry Economic Network, a public-private economic-development group, and seemed poised to serve much the same purpose after the network dissolved in the wake of financial problems.
But in recent months, the alliance has been bogged down in disagreements about how it will be organized and whether public or private interests would hold most of the power on its board.
Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton said he hopes Jasper County remains in the alliance but that its departure doesn't preclude neighborly cooperation.
"I hope Jasper County would want to continue on in a partnership for promoting economic development," Newton said. "The alliance may not be their structure to do that, but what's important is we're committed to working with our neighbors."
Sauls and Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic, who also is an alliance board member, agreed. They say the counties should work together to extend Bluffton Parkway to Interstate 95 and determine the shape of development on S.C. 170, which runs along their border.