Bolton: If S.C. tills soil along I-95, change will come

Associate EditorDecember 8, 2009 

WHILE IT'S GOOD to finally get a comprehensive needs assessment of the underdeveloped, neglected counties along the I-95 corridor, it will be just another expensive taxpayer-funded study collecting dust if nothing is done to address the many problems that beset the area.

Local and state officials long have been aware of the problems outlined in the report, but have been unable (in the case of locals who lack resources) or unwilling (in the case of state leaders who lack the will) to adequately address them.

A study, regardless of how exhaustive, won't bring meaningful change. But it does put the impediments to progress in black and white for all to see, and if it prompts the right people and entities to act, it will have done its job.

It appears to be off to a good start. Francis Marion and S.C. State University officials as well as others have said they intend to work to improve the region. They say the way forward is for officials throughout the corridor to band together and help themselves instead of depending on outside sources. That's wise; while state lawmakers should take more interest in improving the corridor, they've failed to help uplift the area and others like it. Rural areas haven't been a priority, whether state coffers have been flush or feeble.

Most counties along I-95 don't have the resources to make needed improvements by themselves. But if they pool their resources and energy, they have a better chance of finding efficient, cost-effective ways to address common problems. It won't be easy; and change won't happen overnight. But when people in a region decide to take charge of their own destiny, they improve their chances of success.

Make no mistake about it. State officials must play a role in helping improve these areas, which will need financial and other support. If South Carolina would focus even half as intently on promoting job creation in underdeveloped areas as it does enticing mega-watt projects such as Boeing, it would make a tremendous difference. And the state wouldn't have to do it alone; the I-95 corridor has a heavyweight advocate in Congressman James Clyburn, who is committed to improving infrastructure and providing resources to help in his largely rural and poor district.

But when it's all said and done, people who live and work in these communities ultimately will determine whether they succeed. That begins by them coming together and developing the attitude that they intend to improve whether the state helps or not.

It's not that folks in the I-95 corridor haven't tried; they have. But the problems they face are formidable. As I've written before, many areas of our state, including some along I-95, live in a permanent state of recession; double-digit unemployment is an unfortunate way of life. These areas aren't just anxious to get high-paying jobs; they're anxious to get jobs that pay.

We're talking about areas where water, sewer and road quality is poor or underdeveloped; kids go to school in dilapidated schools and often are taught by some of the most inexperienced and least prepared teachers; residents have limited access to quality health care and suffer from chronic diseases at high rates; and many of the best and the brightest leave home never to return and assume leadership positions.

The transformation needed will require collaboration and commitment unlike any in the past. Strong, stable partners are needed to drive the change.

Enter S.C. State and Francis Marion, two major institutions with resources and know-how that will prove invaluable. Presidents George Cooper of S.C. State and Fred Carter of Francis Marion plan to organize local leadership in an effort to prioritize the corridor's needs and come up with solutions. Francis Marion will work with leaders in the northern part of the 17-county corridor while S.C. State works with those in the south.

Problems highlighted by the study include those I mentioned above and more: struggling public schools, health and social service disparities, inadequate infrastructure, a limited tax base, fractured local leadership and spotty economic development. The $300,000 study, paid for with funds approved by the Legislature, was conducted by RTI International, a North Carolina firm.

Toby Moore of RTI said the more he and his colleagues studied the corridor the more they noticed its untapped human resources and the promise it holds. The study noted the corridor has such advantages as a location near the coast, an extensive transportation infrastructure of road and rail and a low cost of living.

That's an important message. Our tiny state can't afford to discount any of its people or communities in the pursuit of prosperity. Instead of looking at the I-95 corridor - or any of our underserved, underdeveloped areas - as a lost cause, we should consider it fertile ground. If we till it, change will come. But if we allow our rural areas to languish, forget about South Carolina reaching its potential. Forget about being competitive. Get ready for more of what we're far too used to: being a state of haves and have-nots - two South Carolinas, one rich and one poor, one rural and one urban.

This effort to improve the I-95 corridor, if successful, just might be the prescription needed to help other ailing areas begin to reach their potential. If that happens, we will see our state begin to move from the bottom of lists we want to be atop of and from atop of lists we want to be at the bottom of.

It's well worth a try.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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