Proof of economic alliance's worth will be jobs, investment

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Proof of economic alliance's worth will be jobs, investment

Published Thursday, February 14, 2013   |  526 Words  |  

An alliance between Beaufort and Sumter counties to promote economic development seems an odd marriage when you consider the geographic distances between the two and the concept of "regional."

But as with arranged marriages of old, money matters, and so it is with this proposed union.

Both counties find themselves out of any regional economic alliance and out of the running for state money targeted for such groups.

This fiscal year, lawmakers approved almost $4.5 million in matching funds to be split among the six regional economic-development agencies in the state. The seven counties that were not part of a regional group, which includes Beaufort and Sumter counties, split just $525,000 in matching funds.

For Beaufort County's Lowcountry Economic Alliance that meant $87,500 instead of the $671,000 in potential matching funds from the state. The alliance board approved a $537,860 budget for 2012-13, tapping up to $315,000 in reserves.

Beaufort County Council this week signed off on a resolution supporting the new alliance. It would not affect either counties' existing economic development entities.

Councilman Jerry Stewart, who serves on the alliance board, said, "It affords us the opportunity to be a true alliance and get state support through the (S.C. Department of Commerce) that we would need. They were pretty much in the same position we were as far as having no partner, so it made some sense."

There apparently is no rule requiring economic alliances be made up of adjacent counties. McCormick County on the state's western border is part of the Central S.C. Alliance even though it does not touch any of the counties in that alliance.

But the other nine counties do border each other. And it does make you wonder whether an alliance between two counties located many miles from each other is what lawmakers had in mind when they came up with the idea of encouraging regional partnerships through additional funding.

Economic development in Beaufort County continues to be a moving target. The county's efforts in recent years have been hindered by the financial problems of its now defunct Lowcountry Economic Network and the impact that had on a previous version of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, a partnership with next-door-neighbor Jasper County.

Efforts to revive the alliance failed last year when Jasper County said it no longer wanted to participate and joined the Southern Carolina Alliance, a six-county group comprising Jasper, Hampton, Allendale, Barnwell, Bamberg and Colleton counties.

Lowcountry Economic Alliance officials make a case for a partnership with Sumter County, which lies about 25 miles east of Columbia. Sumter, too, has military bases and a work force that includes people transitioning out of the military. The two counties won't compete directly with each other because of the distance, says executive director Kim Statler.

As with the previous incarnations of economic development we've seen, this new alliance will stand or fall on the jobs and business investment it attracts to Beaufort and Sumter counties. That's the real test of whether any state money it might get is money well spent.