BY RON BRINSON
Teddie Pryor seems to be coming at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance with a meat-ax public impeachment. To many, his rhetoric seems hyper-officious and extra-statutory.
And maybe it is.
But Pryor is publicly surfacing a multi-dimensional controversy simmering unresolved for years - the Alliance's relationships with county and municipal governments have become very problematic.
This is important public business, involving lots of taxpayers' money, and we ought to be paying attention. The CRDA has been our community's "marketing" agent since 1995. Its founding was a message to the world that regional Charleston would toil as one ambitious community to counter the closing of the Charleston naval operations at North Charleston.
In 2014, that message is lost in ugly rancor.
Pryor and other elected leaders argue the Alliance has regressed to a "Chamber of Commerce" type collective. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey declared Thursday, "This group has become big travel budgets, expensive suits, country club dues and big salaries; they just don't understand the daily roles of county and municipal governments in finalizing economic development deals."
So, Pryor has grabbed center stage to tell the world about problems that threaten a messy CRDA implosion.
Actually, it's already messy and the Alliance's public funding structures are teetering as Charleston County Council prepares for a funding decision meeting Tuesday.
It's a scary thought to many, but Pryor is fairly confident that Charleston County can do its own marketing in league with Berkeley and Dorchester counties and the S.C. Department of Commerce. His bottom line position: Charleston County's $500,000 annual contribution is a subsidy of an inefficient and ineffective organization.
Dorchester County already has reduced its financial support to $50,000 from $170,000 annually - after CRDA acted to increase its assessment to $215,000.
Berkeley County's elected officials are "waiting to see . keeping all options open . doing what's best for Berkeley County." That's code for they too are concerned about the Alliance.
Meetings in 2012 snapped to focus CRDA's flawed relationships. The major government agency financial contributors wanted seats on the governance board and executive committee, which then were reserved for private sector "pay-to-play" donors. The Alliance's private sector representatives were reluctant to accommodate the elected officials; an acknowledged purpose of the Alliance is to keep industrial and commercial marketing beyond public record discovery and public attention that can quickly spoil prospecting.
The government donors prevailed and gained governance seats, but tensions nonetheless have multiplied. Now the grievance is that the Alliance is in mission creep, not keeping government representatives sufficiently informed and cost ineffective. As a Dorchester County councilman put it, "They need to go back to their role when the Alliance was established 20 years ago - find prospects and get them to the state and counties quickly. This should be about results and team work. It's not anymore."
Most progressive communities have marketing alliances that blend public and private salesmanship. Some are notably low-key, professionally-oriented and singularly focused on prospecting for investments that create jobs and add value to lifestyle qualities. Others tend to be higher profile operations seemingly driven by the constructive egos of prominent community leaders.
As one economic development professional put it, "These agencies often get caught up in the glamor of achievement. Keeping the politics of egos and self-interest out of the operation is as big a challenge as finding the next factory."
Some of us remember the formative days of regional Charleston's economic development successes, a half-century ago, when Bill Humphries quietly led the Charleston Development Board in the processing of prospects.
And when regionalism was an article of faith, not a political or ego proposition.
Economic development cooperatives are front-line marketing tools for South Carolina's economic development operation. The S.C. Department of Commerce urges counties to join such alliances.
There are eight scattered throughout our state. The Department of Commerce allocates available state funds to these groups on a matching basis and then depends on them to bring in prospects.
So, how well a regional alliance performs matters greatly to taxpayers, and there's no room for simmering disconnects among private sector and public sector partners.
And there's no room for sophomoric, petty personality-based divisiveness, nor what the professionals warn against - "the creeping politics of egos."
If the CRDA didn't exist, smart leadership would be thoughtfully working to create it - or something like it - just as some leaders did in February 1995.
So why let CRDA 2014 simply implode? Why not fix it once and for all by recalibrating its mission and its communications protocols - and assuring appropriate representation to agencies bringing taxpayers' monies to the table.
Maybe that's the message Teddie Pryor has been carving out with his meat-ax.
Let's hope so.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, 1979-86, and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans, 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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