Steve Dykes has sat through his share of commercial real estate luncheons in the past few years, one of the most brutal slogs on record for that economically sensitive industry.

So forgive him for growing weary of a certain cliche that too many half-hopeful speakers have trotted out while gazing into their crystal balls.

“You'd always hear 'cautious optimism,' ” said Dykes, whose job is to recruit new businesses to Charleston County. “I've actually made up jokes about what cautious optimism is.”

He is now happy to report that he himself is less cautious, more optimistic.

“I can tell you, it feels different these days,” said Dykes, the county's director of economic development.

“In the expansion world that our office works in ... we have a lot more optimism going on and lot more people beginning to explore ways of getting bigger,” he continued. “I haven't had too many pull the trigger yet, but we're staying in touch with a lot more companies to strengthen their hands when the time comes.”

As reported in recent weeks, Charleston County has two decent-size fish on the line with hopes of landing them soon. While they haven't been identified publicly yet because of confidentiality agreements, Project Aries and Project Quality are looking to invest a combined $76 million and create more than 180 jobs.

Project Aries is the code-name for a distribution center that an existing company plans to build.

Project Quality is more intriguing: It's an automotive manufacturing business looking to invest $56 million in the rapidly developing Palmetto Commerce Park in North Charleston.

In the pipelineThe uptick in business activity isn't limited to Charleston County, as Hank Taylor of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance can attest.

Dorchester County Council last month approved an incentive package for a previously announced $200 million expansion of the Showa Denko Carbon plant in Ridgeville that's expected to create about 90 jobs.

In Berkeley County, officials this week are holding a recognition event to welcome several new employers, led by the high-voltage cablemaker Nexans. The French company is shelling out $85 million to build a 200-worker plant in the Bushy Park Industrial Complex.

More may be coming based on activity at the development alliance, which markets the three counties to new and expanding businesses.

“Leads and enquiries have spiked up,” said Taylor, a retired brigadier general who is the group's vice president of global business.

The alliance classifies each prospect that comes knocking. A “qualified” deal means the region has met all of the requirements of a given company. Taylor said his office is working on 25 such deals.

“Those are distributed across our three counties,” he said.

Better yet, nearly half of the 25 serious prospects are in the critical decision-making stage.

“That's a good pipeline,” Taylor said.

Higher profileTaylor and Dykes said Charleston is continuing to reap the benefits of key investments that have elevated the region's business profile, including the Boeing 787 plant and the wind-turbine testing center that Clemson is building on the former Navy base.

“We've gotten great international attention over the past year,” Taylor said.

Dykes said it's difficult to pinpoint any one reason why business leaders appear to be ready to commit capital and create jobs even as the economy rumbles down a bumpy road.

Maybe they're just feeling cautiously optimistic.

“I don't think it's a vote of confidence in the economy,” Dykes said. “I don't think they're that naive. They're just being pragmatic, realistic and sticking their necks out.”

Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.