The smokestack-chasing game in the Charleston area had a Wild West streak to it pre-1990.
Top donors to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance belong to the nonprofit group's "Economic Leadership Council." Its members:
Berkeley Electric Cooperative
Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority
Charleston Southern University
Charleston Trident Association of Realtors
College of Charleston
Medical University of South Carolina
MWV Community Development & Land Management
O.L. Thompson Construction Co.
Roper St. Francis Healthcare
South State Bank
Trident Technical College
University of South Carolina
The approach was basically every municipality for itself, as the three counties in the region competed fiercely for new jobs. They operated for the most part on their own - and for their own benefit.
Eventually, infighting and divisive turf wars left the region with a serious image problem.
An effort to get the counties to play nice for the broader economy's sake took off in 1990, when the Trident Economic Development Authority was formed as part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. But that organization had a fairly brief shelf life, as the mistrust continued to smolder among critics who felt it was too aligned with old-school Charleston and not so much with the then-outlying areas.
It took an economic calamity - the closure of the Navy base - to force leaders to find a way to at least ease the local rivalries. The solution was the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
Established in 1995 and funded with private and public dollars, the group was set up to be a clearinghouse that would market the entire region to businesses without playing favorites.
For years, the formula worked. It seemed no jobs announcement was too small to trumpet in the atrium outside the alliance's original offices off International Boulevard.
Those celebratory days are long gone.
The future of the nonprofit organization is now in political peril. Odds are that it is likely to be abandoned by three of its earliest and largest financial backers: the counties it was set up to represent.
The sources of the conflicts are myriad. Some elected officials are questioning whether they're getting their money's worth, saying the alliance isn't working hard enough to recruit new jobs. Charleston County has complained the group is stepping on its economic development office's toes by meeting with existing businesses. There's also grousing about executive pay, among other issues.
Marriage gone bad
The political hardball heated up last week, when Charleston County announced it was severing ties with the group, taking with it its $500,000 annual contribution. Dorchester and Berkeley counties are looking at whether to follow suit.
About a third of the alliance's $3.1 million annual budget is on the line.
In breaking off, Charleston County has its eye on creating a new organization, according to County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, though no details were released.
"We're moving forward with something different, and if the other counties want to, that's fine," Pryor told The Post and Courier on Tuesday. "We are going to form something different."
The situation has deteriorated to the point that S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt traveled to North Charleston on Friday to meet with local officials about the split. It's an immediate concern for him because the Commerce Department now funnels most of its Charleston area job leads through the alliance, which then brings in county economic development staffers. Hitt has said that for the record he'd rather deal with regional organizations.
The counties have aired grievances about the alliance at least once before.
Early last year, the chairs of the three governing councils wrote a pointed letter to the alliance's board leadership, complaining that they felt marginalized and shut out of some key decisions. They were particularly upset about a so-called pay-to-play fundraising strategy adopted in 2009 that gave the most generous private-sector donors more influence. The result was "a persistent bias against the public sector in Board of Directors governance issues," according to the letter.
They cited other concerns in their three-page missive, as well, and noted that if their demands for changes were not met, "it will constitute a serious breach which will fundamentally threaten our relationship."
The issues were expected to be dealt with, both sides agreed at the time.
"We just thought we needed to be a little more involved ... and we're working on that right now and we think it's going to be resolved," Pryor told The Post and Courier in June 2013. "We have a great partnership and a great relationship, and we want to continue that."
In reality, the old wounds seem to have festered. Last week, Pryor likened the frayed relationship between Charleston County and the alliance as a "bad marriage."
The spat even has some supporters wondering privately whether the alliance has run its course after 19 years, at least in its current form. If it survives, a power struggle could be in the offing should Charleston County follow through on its proposal to create a parallel organization.
The alliance will have to change its ways, but it intends to stick around and continue without public dollars if necessary, according to a letter that board Chairman Lonnie Carter sent to financial supporters early last week. The Santee Cooper CEO went on to say the group will "begin considering new organizational and structural models. We will be engaging with you on those models for your input and feedback."
In the short term, the immediate question is whether the discord and the likely emergence of a rival economic development entity will disrupt or hurt the region's ability to court new industry.
Alliance CEO David Ginn addressed that point in a written statement last week. In this instance, he argued that two heads aren't better than one.
"Companies want a single point of contact and expect a professional, regional and responsive economic development organization to facilitate the process," Ginn said. "Duplicative, competing regional organizations will confuse prospective companies and will damage our three-county region's economic momentum, our community's brand and our ability to compete globally."
Berkeley County Council Finance Committee Chairman Tim Callanan, who has reservations about sending more tax dollars to the alliance without more accountability and better communication, agreed with Ginn on that point.
"A region needs an entity to act as a point of contact," Callanan said. "It is an absolute necessity, and no one I've talked to disagrees with that. Whether the CRDA can be salvaged or whether we simply start from scratch is where we are right now, the way I see it."
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572