There was a lot of happy talk in the Trident Technical College ballroom Friday afternoon as Charleston's tourism and business leadership gathered to celebrate the city's recent recognition, by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, as the top tourist destination in the world.
“How cool is it to be #1?” said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
True to the event's title, “Retaining and Leveraging #1,” the congratulations were followed by calls for continued improvement in order to remain the best.
It was largely a pep rally — until Darla Moore, the no-nonsense financier and philanthropist from Lake City, took the stage.
Moore warmed up the crowd by praising Charleston, where she has a home, and joking that lecturing Hill and Trident Tech President Mary Thornley “feels like going to Augusta National and telling them about how I think they ought to run a golf club,” she said, a reference to her recent induction, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as the first female members of the infamously exclusive club.
But then Moore recalled how, after giving $25 million to the University of South Carolina to establish the business school that now bears her name, she took a hard look at her home state's vital statistics and was “taken aback.”
“Not only were our educational foundations not strong enough to give you the number of world-class students from South Carolina that you wanted to have attend the Darla Moore School of Business, but when they graduated the state's economy would not be strong enough to offer the graduates good job opportunities,” she said.
“And as I told my colleagues at the time, yeah, I felt like I'd pretty much pissed $25 million down a rathole,” she said.
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After a pause, during which Moore halfheartedly excused herself and the audience laughed heartily, Moore continued her frank appraisal of the Palmetto State.
“But even more disturbing than that, at the same time I was reviewing these not-so-hot measurements of our economic and educational foundations, the media in the state was reporting how great South Carolina was doing,” she said.
“According to the South Carolina Department of Commerce at the time we had recruited hundreds of millions in foreign capital which ... would lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs. Boy, was that a dichotomy. On one hand the politicians were saying we were doing great, and on the other hand the real numbers were telling another story.”
Moore, who made her own money as a banker before marrying Richard Rainwater and increasing his already considerable family wealth, wasn't done.
She said that during a visit to the BMW manufacturing complex in Spartanburg, an executive there told her the luxury auto maker “destroyed the first 800 cars they made in South Carolina.”
“Weren't up to quality,” Moore explained. “Can you imagine the cost of that?”
She told these stories to make a broader point. Just like BMW, if the Charleston hospitality industry is going to maintain or increase its level of quality and renown, it needs a skilled workforce. She seemed to be talking about the entire state.
“Just being the cheapest will not sustain you,” she said. There must be workforce development and innovation. “This is what's called value added.”
And Moore said the people in the room would have to lead the effort, “not some trade association in Columbia or the government.” She urged businesses to collaborate with each other and with public institutions, such as Trident Tech.
“Take control of your destiny,” she said.
To that end, Dick Elliott, founder and president of Maverick Southern Kitchen, announced Friday that his restaurant group would match any donations to Trident Tech from his peers up to $100,000.
The goal for the 2012 capital campaign, which closes next month, is $3.5 million. Thornley, the college's president, said $3.25 million already has been raised, and all indications are that Trident will eclipse its goal.
Moore put on her fur vest and left the event before it was over, explaining to a reporter that her “pissed” comment referred to the state, not USC, and that she stands by it.
But she didn't leave before making a promise to Anita Zucker, the Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist who is leading the college's capital campaign.
“She whispered to me, 'I'm going to be giving you, Anita, $100,000 for Trident Technical College,” Zucker announced.
As the luncheon guests filtered out, Thornley said she had, in fact, heard Moore use the “pissed” line before, at a conference in Atlanta. On the other hand, she had just heard about Moore's $100,000 for the first time.
“It's just awesome,” she said. “I didn't know a thing about that.”