Jobs and the economy continue to be frontline issues across South Carolina, but nowhere more than in its rural communities, where unemployment always is higher and jobs scarcer than in the cities.
About 150 economic development leaders from around the state gathered Monday in Aiken for the annual S.C. Rural Summit to stake out some remedies to the perennial problem.
With unemployment registering in the double digits in many rural counties, the problems stack up: lack of water and sewer capacity suitable to serve industry, poor education results and inadequate healthcare facilities.
“We have a number of problems,” said Ron King, a member of the Marlboro County Economic Development Board who attended Monday’s summit.
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Take Bennettsville, for example. The county seat has ample sewer and water capacity to attract big businesses, King said, but the town is 22 miles from I-95. Plants that announced openings in 2012 in South Carolina chose sites within about eight miles of an interstate, he said.
Completion of the Interstate 73 corridor would greatly help economic development not just in Marlboro County, King said but also Horry and Charleston counties and in Marion County, where leaders may be considering another inland port, such as the one that leaders broke ground on last week in Greer.
Other counties say they have key elements in place for industrial growth, but as the economy begins to pick up again, they need help marketing what they have to offer.
In Abbeville County, for instance, development services director Steve Bowles said officials need help from state Commerce Department officials to help land a suitable tenant for a move-in ready, 60,000-square-foot spec industrial building on ample acreage with all the necessary infrastructure.
Sometimes, state officials are too reluctant to get involved with such projects until the local officials have actually snared a client, said Joe Max Higgins, Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO in Columbus, Miss. A summit presenter, he told the group that in economic development, “second pays the same as last.”
But Gov. Nikki Haley, who keynoted the summit, said the state stands ready to assist rural counties.
“We will stop traffic to get infrastructure put in to get a company to a rural area,” said Haley, a Bamberg native. “I have passion in my heart for rural communities.”
Haley told the leaders “the funnel is full” and the future bright for rural communities in South Carolina, despite the challenges. She said 45 out of the state’s 46 counties have announced either a new opening or expansion in the past few years.
But a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group recently put out criticism of the state’s economic development performance, giving its business and jobs performance an “F” – despite national business accolades from several corners as the state has experienced a renaissance of sorts in manufacturing.
The state in recent years has attracted Boeing to the Lowcountry, pushed up its bustling automotive sector, become the nation’s leader in tire manufacturing and put up a record year in exports in 2012.
But most of those jobs have gone to more populated centers in the state, included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The unemployment rate for counties in an MSA was 8.2 percent at the end of 2012, the latest date for which statistics are available. The counties outside of an MSA had a collective unemployment rate of 10.9 percent. Statewide, the rate was 8.4 percent.
The Corporation for Enterprise Development said in its 2013 Economic and Opportunity Scorecard released in January that the Palmetto State ranked 48th overall for the financial stability of its residents. The group also said the state has the ninth worst rate in the nation of low wage jobs, classifying 28 percent of jobs as low wage. Workers make $6,300 less than the national average, but the pay is even lower for rural residents.
“The failing score in business and jobs is due in part to high unemployment particularly among households of color,” stated a press release on the report issued by the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations.
Haley said she had not seen the report, released to the media Jan. 30.
Haley urged counties to join forces with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce’s Work Ready initiative, announced in February as a means of helping to bridge the gap between the state’s workforce and job placement.
South Carolina is one of four states participating in the first ACT Certified Work Ready Communities Academy, a program designed to aid officials in developing and deploying an effective strategy to develop a workforce.
Counties become certified through the 12-month training program as having a trained workforce – a signal to businesses that they will be able to find quality employees if they choose to locate in that county. All but 12 counties in the state have signed up, Haley said. One of those that is lagging behind, Barnwell County, missed the deadline but will take advantage of the training now, leaders said.
McCormick County, the only county in the state where neither a new company nor an expansion has occurred in the past few years, said much of the blame for that situation rests on local leaders, who are now trying to move past a hard luck economy.
McCormick County Council chairman Charles Jennings said the county had to let go of its sole economic development employee due to cutbacks in spending in the townA part time economic developer has recently been hired, he said.
Other challenges are broader in nature. The state has about a thousand deficient bridges right now, Haley said. Strong bridges and roads are critical in hauling heavy loads in and out of the state, and the General Assembly is beginning to see the need to invest money in them, Haley said.
“I can bring in all those companies but if we don’t do something about our infrastructure, all those companies will stop,” she said. “It’s just that simple.”