Charleston County's exit shakes up regional industry-recruiting agency

Charleston Regional Development Alliance serves as the industry-recruiting agency for the Charleston region.

Charleston County will no longer provide funding or be a part of the main industry-recruiting agency in the Lowcountry and wants to create a new job-seeking alliance with Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

"Charleston County is out," County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said Tuesday of the decision to leave the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. "We're moving forward with something different, and if the other counties want to, that's fine. We are going to form something different."

Pryor said the move to withdraw from the alliance does not need approval of County Council since the funds are part of the economic development department.

Pryor's comments came one day after alliance chairman Lonnie Carter said Charleston County officials informed him last week the county would no longer participate.

On Monday, Pryor discounted Carter's remarks, saying the county was willing to give $50,000 and withhold the rest of its annual contribution until its demands were met.

That all changed Tuesday. Pryor said the change was because of Carter's letter to investors on Monday, informing them of the county's decision.

Charleston County officials wanted the alliance to focus more on recruitment of new industry, leave existing industry expansions up to the county and include the county in any incentive packages from their inception.

In response to the county's latest move, Carter said the alliance will continue to reach out to governments for inclusion.

"The alliance will continue to involve our local government leadership in working together on our shared goals for the region," Carter said.

He said the alliance has been "wildly successful," producing 27,500 new jobs and $7.5 billion in capital investment from 251 new or expanding companies since 1995.

The nonprofit group is funded by the three counties, the five largest municipalities in the Charleston region, private businesses and academic institutions, who are all called investors.

"The Charleston Regional Development Alliance has worked successfully to develop a world-class economy over the past two decades, thanks to efforts by progressive leaders from our region's public and private ranks, " Carter said.

David Ginn, president and CEO of the alliance, said working together is critical to regional industry recruitment.

"The economic success of our three-county region is the result of a shared vision and hard work of a true public-private partnership working together, over time, to move our region forward," he said.

"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."

Charleston County officials plan to meet with state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt on Friday to talk about the latest developments, Pryor said.

The county's decision to leave the alliance will pull $500,000 a year out of the group's $3.1 million annual budget. It also will dismantle its relationship with the agency that has served to recruit industry to the area since the mid-1990s, shortly after federal officials decided to shut down the former Navy base.

Dorchester cut its funding to the alliance earlier this year to $50,000 a year from $173,000 last year because of budget constraints and questions over the return on its investment.

Berkeley set aside $258,000 for the agency - about the same as last year - but council members put a hold on the money to see how events transpire.

Dorchester further discussed its funding during a closed-door meeting Monday, but it did not decide one way or the other on its future commitment to the alliance.

"This puts us between a rock and hard place," Dorchester County Council Chairman Bill Hearn said. "We don't want to be at odds with the other two counties, and we don't want to be at odds with the alliance."

Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said he will attend the meeting with the state commerce secretary and other officials and is aware of talk of a new group trying to be formed.

"The three counties will meet to see what kind of organization we might do," Davis said. "It's a work in progress."

If a new group is formed among the three counties to recruit industry, Davis said business will remain "pretty much the same, except projects won't flow through the alliance. Our economic development folks will work through Commerce."

Pryor has criticized the alliance for focusing too much effort on gaining private and academic investors instead of recruiting industry, but he said the developing new group will include private industry.

One reason for that is because the alliance now gets matching funds of roughly $300,000 from the state Commerce Department to help recruit industry, but private money is required for the match.

Pryor also has been critical of the alliance for targeting existing industries for expansions when he said the counties should be doing that, and for putting together incentive packages and then bringing them to the counties at the last minute.

Ginn said last month the alliance has no incentives to offer and economic development officials in all three counties are informed of an industry prospect as soon as his group is contacted.

"The counties also provide the incentive information that we distribute," said alliance spokeswoman Claire Gibbons. "The counties present incentive information directly to prospects."

Hitt, the Commerce Department chief and a former BMW executive, also urged the counties to work together.

"Since 2011, we have encouraged all of the counties to be active in regional alliances, as we see the value of regionalism, leveraging the broad business community and joint marketing efforts in recruiting business and jobs to the state," he said.