Paving the way

Charleston Digitial Corridor officials recently annocuned an expansion to Beaufort.

Young people in Beaufort are leaving en masse. The city’s becoming more expensive, but pay isn’t going up. It’s a haven for tourists and outsiders, but locals have fewer options.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it should. The way Beaufort officials see it, their situation isn’t so different from Charleston’s a few decades earlier.

They see two coastal cities dependent on big military installations, both long on historic charm and tourist appeal but relatively short on economic diversity. And in Charleston, they see one that shook its doldrums and emerged with a booming economy, thanks in part to a manufacturing renaissance and a burgeoning technology sector.

“If time stopped and we were back 15 years where Charleston was, that’s where we’re starting,” said Bill Prokop, Beaufort’s city manager. “People graduating or people getting out of the military, which we have a large contingent of, have no place to really go to work in our immediate area, so they’re either going to Savannah or they’re going to Charleston.”

So Beaufort’s taking a page from Charleston: Officials plans to launch an initiative this fall that they hope will give rise to a tech community in a city that has only a few companies in the industry.

The project — Beaufort Digital Corridor — is a spin-off of the Charleston Digital Corridor, which began in 2001 as a city-backed initiative to attract and grow technology startups here.

In Charleston, the model has worked. The initiative helped launch some of the city’s most prominent startups, like Blue Acorn, Good Done Great and PeopleMatter, which a Virginia company bought last month for an undisclosed amount.

The Beaufort project will be run by Charleston Digital Corridor staff, and the city plans to renovate part of an old bank branch in the historic downtown to look like the Flagship incubators on Calhoun Street, a space it plans to call Basecamp.

“This is a long-term strategy. It’s basically a five- to 10-year strategy. Could we shave some time off because we have some data?” said Ernest Andrade, executive director of the Charleston Digital Corridor. “We’re not providing them with a study. What we’re providing them with is a cookbook.”

But in Beaufort, the strategy might face a steeper climb. The city has a handful of tech startups — many of them working from home — and manufacturers that could use more technical talent. But it doesn’t have the big names — like Blackbaud, Benefitfocus and Google — that the Lowcountry does.

So expectations are relatively muted. Prokop said the city would like to see a dozen or so participants join the corridor in its first year and about 100 a few years after that.

Stephen Murray, a city councilman involved in Beaufort’s economic development efforts, said he hoped a scaled-down version might take hold, helping to grow smaller, boutique companies instead of shooting for a breakout success.

“I don’t think any of us in Beaufort think that in five to 10 years we will have the critical mass that Charleston has,” Murray said. “I think what we hope is maybe a smaller model of what Charleston has been able to do.”

It could also ease pressure on the tech-related companies that have already gotten started in Beaufort, said Ginger Wareham, founder of Picklejuice, a web design agency in downtown Beaufort.

Finding work in town has been challenging, she said, and opportunities for collaboration have been scant, so she hopes the new focus on tech and creative fields will drive business.

“The more energy we bring to this town and tech and creative the better,” Wareham said. “We don’t want to move, but it’s a tough market, so hopefully this will open some doors for all of us.”

And the city is growing talent that’s moving elsewhere, officials say. They hope growing a few tech companies could help lure service members leaving the Marines’ air station just west of downtown and graduates of the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, which has its main campus a few blocks north of the new Basecamp building.

Graduates of the university’s computational science program mostly leave the area, said Brian Canada, assistant professor of computational science at USCB. Of the 20 or so graduates he’s taught, only one has stayed in Beaufort County, Canada said.

“They are getting jobs in Charleston, Columbia and throughout the country,” Canada said. “The students will go where the jobs are.”

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703.