Opinion Extra

State should go to bat for Jasper, Hampton counties

All of South Carolina rejoiced when Boeing announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in North Charleston.

The General Assembly was quick to unanimously pass an incentive package worth several hundred million dollars. Legislators from districts far and wide voted for it, even though many of their constituents might never realize any direct benefit.

That's because we all are committed to improving the quality of life for the people of South Carolina.

It is now time for state leaders to rally around my people in Jasper and Hampton counties, the same way we all went to bat to get Boeing to Charleston.

These counties, with high unemployment and poverty, have the opportunity to attract a business complex that would generate approximately 2,500 jobs and sales taxes to the state of nearly $175 million over 15 years.

The Sembler Co. wants to build the area's largest outdoor shopping mall, Okatie Crossings, on 280 acres of land off I-95 in southern Jasper County.

The hub of the $400 million development will house high-end luxury manufacturers' stores such as Armani, Gucci and Ferragamo. Also planned within the center will be a number of high-end casual restaurants.

Critics who say this will be just another outlet mall simply don't know what they're talking about. There are only a handful of malls on this scale anywhere in the country.

The company envisions the mall as a major tourist attraction, drawing tourists from hundreds of miles away and significantly expanding the area's already strong tourism base.

Unlike any other major economic development project I've heard of, the developers are not asking the state to give up one dime of existing revenue for infrastructure or any other use. In this case, the developer would be reimbursed only 10 percent of total investment costs - from sales tax dollars the investors themselves will generate.

And unlike other incentive packages that the state routinely offers, this has safeguards. Investment and employment thresholds must be met before any money is provided to the project, and continued thresholds must be maintained to continue to receive the incentives.

The local option sales tax and the tax that funds the Education Improvement Act will not be touched.

The Okatie Crossings project has widespread consumer support among community groups, including some residents in Sun City, the residential community next to the development.

"Sembler's financial commitments to road improvements and traffic signaling, as well as Sembler's storm water management plan, strike us as positive, constructive and consistent with county planning and ordinances," they wrote in a letter to local political leaders.

The citizens group surveyed neighbors throughout the area and found "strong interest in a shopping experience not available elsewhere in either Beaufort or Jasper counties."

A recent editorial in this newspaper questioned the use of incentives to build Okatie Crossings. "The better and smarter approach," according to the editorial, "is to make give-aways a less important part of the job recruitment strategy, by making our state and individual communities places where businesses want to locate."

The editorial went on to say that can be accomplished with a well-educated work force, a good quality of life and basic infrastructure.

That is exactly what Okatie Crossings will provide for our area. It will give us a local tax base to improve our schools and build a better infrastructure.

The project will generate more than $215 million in taxes and fees for Jasper, Beaufort and Hampton counties and the city of Hardeeville. These are much-needed dollars for the area.

This would be transformative. It would improve the quality of life in an area with sky-high unemployment, an area where one in five persons is below the poverty level. Families will have opportunities they never dreamed of because of what the development offers.

Cynics of the proposed incentive package mockingly ask: "What's next? Incentives for a fast food store?"

When BMW was on the drawing boards, no one asked: "What's next? Incentives for a car mechanic?"

No, such cynicism is reserved for rural South Carolina, which has been left out of the state's economic development efforts.

Okatie Crossings is our area's Boeing and BMW.

Our citizens rejoiced when Boeing's plans to come to South Carolina were announced.

We simply ask for the same support.