FLORENCE - Officials at Francis Marion University and S.C. State University released results Friday from what they described as the first comprehensive needs assessment of the long-troubled Interstate 95 corridor.
The $300,000 study - paid for by state taxpayers through an appropriation by the General Assembly and conducted in 2008 by North Carolina-based RTI International - pointed out several problems that often have been cited as big hurdles in the corridor's path to progress.
Those problems include:
- Troubled public schools
- Health and social service disparities
- Insufficient infrastructure
- A limited tax base
- Fractured local leadership
- Spotty economic development
But in addition to exploring those problems, the presidents of S.C. State and Francis Marion pledged to pull together local leadership in a structured bid to address them.
"A project of this scope will require commitment sustainability," S.C. State president George Cooper said. "We're going to provide the leadership to be brokers."
FMU president Fred Carter announced that Emerson Gower, a recently retired regional vice president for Progress Energy, will put together a team of local officials to prioritize the corridor's needs and suggest ways to address them.
Carter said the group should have some suggestions for an implementation plan by spring.
"We're going to approach it like we're putting together a business plan," Gower said.
The plan is for FMU to work with local leaders in the northern part of the 17-county corridor that stretches from North Carolina to Georgia. S.C. State will work with local leaders in the southern section of the corridor.
Today - and for many years - counties in the I-95 corridor have had some of the state's highest unemployment rates.
Its residents have struggled with high rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
Many of the corridor's schools have struggled academically; some are old and in need of structural repair, a problem that drew national attention this year after a Dillon County middle school student wrote a letter to President Obama seeking funds for fixes at her school.
The student, Ty'Sheoma Bethea, was invited by the White House in February to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama as the president made his first speech to a joint session of Congress.
Obama quoted from Bethea's letter in arguing for more infrastructure spending.
Several schools in the I-95 corridor are part of a lawsuit alleging the state has not provided enough funding for students to receive an adequate education.
The corridor is now frequently referred to by the name of a film that put a spotlight on its troubles, "The Corridor of Shame."
But Toby Moore of RTI said all is not lost in the corridor.
"The more time we spent in the I-95 corridor, the more we wondered why it wasn't more developed," Moore said. "It's really a missed opportunity for the state. You have human resources waiting to be tapped. What we found is a lot of promise."
Moore said RTI conducted 35 initial interviews, more than two dozen follow-up interviews and telephone calls with political, health-care and community leaders in each county of the corridor.
He said his team used U.S. Census Bureau data and culled from research performed by other organizations.
The study noted several advantages the corridor offers - a location near the coast, an extensive transportation infrastructure of road and rail, and a low cost of living.
Still, state Sen. John Matthews, an Orangeburg Democrat who pushed for the study to be funded, said the corridor will continue to struggle unless its leaders act more in concert.
Asked why his colleagues in different parts of the state would use scarce state funding to address problems in the corridor, he said they wouldn't - unless they were convinced the corridor's leaders would act in unison in the give-and-take horse trading that is standard fare in any legislature.
"We need a linkage, a glue," he said. "If we can get together on this, we'll be in a position to give or to deny. We'll be able to get things done."
Frank Roberson, superintendent of schools in Marlboro County, said he and other local leaders are ready to work together.
"I think as long as the individual entities can see the good that can come from a regional effort - as long as Marlboro County can see the good - then I think Marlboro County will give 150 percent," he said. "I see that being the case in other counties as well. I really don't think it will be as much of a challenge to work together as one might think."
Carter, who takes pride in his school's mission to educate students from the corridor, said state help will be more than welcomed once specific needs are prioritized.
But outside help alone won't get the job done, he said.
"This isn't going to be done exclusively with state or federal funding," he said. "Success has to be achieved by people in the region."