COLUMBIA - The creation of a major comprehensive research university in Charleston would drive economic development and leave a lasting legacy for lawmakers who help create such a place, Mayor Joe Riley told a state House panel tasked with studying a potential merger between the College of Charleston and Medical University of South Carolina.

"It would be a huge missed opportunity," Riley said at the House merger panel's first meeting Wednesday. "It's about us aspiring to greatness. This will be a wonderful center of excellence for this state."

Riley urged lawmakers to think big and consider the impact of a major university in the Charleston region in the next 25 years. Charleston's competitors are not necessarily other regions in the state, but other great U.S. places such as Austin, Boston, Raleigh and Silicon Valley, he said.

A merged MUSC and the College is one way to begin to offer more graduate degree programs and draw private dollars, he said. MUSC, which has top nationally ranked medical programs, has said such a plan could diminish the school and its offerings; College of Charleston faculty and leaders have voiced similar concerns.

The panel tasked with hashing through merger issues is made up of Reps. Jim Merrill, Leon Stavrinakis, Kenny Bingham, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Mike Anthony, Chip Limehouse and Murrell Smith. Smith, R-Sumter, was added to the original panel of six members and Merrill has been named chairman.

Republican Merrill and Democrat Stavrinakis, both of Charleston, last month filed a bill that would merge the two schools. They say the region needs a comprehensive research university to attract and retain businesses and train the next generation of South Carolina's workforce.

The committee has two members on each side of the debate and at least two considered to be in the middle. Merrill and Stavrinakis have argued for the merger while Bingham, R-Cayce, and Limehouse, R-Charleston, said they are opposed to it.

But all sides said Wednesday they were open to a dialogue on how best to move forward. Merrill said in an interview that the committee would take a "broad look" at higher education and workforce needs across the state. He said he hopes to reach a consensus this year, which could take the form of a bill sent to the House floor.

House members are focused on filling job needs, such as those provided by Boeing. "We've invested over a billion dollars recently in new companies," Stavrinakis said. "That's part one, getting the jobs here. Part two is making sure South Carolinians can get those jobs."

Merger talks also come amidst presidential searches for both MUSC and the College, as well as the Legislature's election of the College's board of trustees. Politicking for spots on the board has been in full swing at the Statehouse this week. Only two seats for the C of C board are contested: incumbent John H. Busch was to face Randolph R. Lowell and Joseph F. Thompson faces R. Scott Woods.

However, Lowell has dropped out of the race, according to a list of candidates provided by the office of Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

Woods also plans to drop out, lawmakers said. Both Busch and Thompson - expected to be formally re-elected when the House votes on appointments next week - support Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell for the presidential job, said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, who supports both candidates. McConnell is one of three finalists for the top job. A decision on the college's new president is expected this week.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.