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Charleston groups aim to create solutions to region's vexing economic issues

Affordable Housing (copy)

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg speaks earlier this year outside a new home built in Charleston's Rosemont neighborhood. Economic development groups plan to study how issues like a lack of affordable housing can be solved in the Charleston region. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A group of economic development agencies are collaborating on a year-long study to determine a post-pandemic approach to solving some of the Charleston region's biggest problems, including affordable housing, workforce development and broadband access in rural and underserved communities.

The effort, called "One Region Roadmap: Opportunities For All," kicks off May 13 with the first of several focus group events that will eventually include about 500 area individuals, businesses and nonprofits with expertise in infrastructure, housing, economic and income equity and other areas seen as key to the region's success as the economy moves beyond COVID-19.

The study is being funded with a $400,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration.

"This is going to be the most inclusive effort we've had over 25 years of planning" since the Navy Base in North Charleston closed in 1996, said Brian Derreberry, CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Derreberry said the group will start with an examination of the economy prior to COVID-19 and how different sectors fared as the region emerged from the pandemic. 

"We know there have been a number of disruptions in our metro economy," he said. "Some of those will provide distinct recovery challenges, some of those will provide new, unique opportunities."

A major focus will be on bringing those opportunities to low-income neighborhoods and rural areas that previously might have missed out on the Charleston region's economic growth.

"We will be demonstrably more inclusive as a region over the years ahead," Derreberry said.

Kendra Stewart, chair of the One Region task force, said local governments will have to work together to solve regional issues — something that hasn't always happened in the past.

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"We have tremendous public servants working in our local governments ... but, you know, they get caught up in these really difficult challenges in their own communities and don't have the opportunity to think about them in a broader scope," said Stewart, who also is chair of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston.

"Maybe one of the positive outcomes of COVID is the recognition that if we're really going to address systemic and structural problems, it's going to take a regional approach," Stewart said. "We have the capability to do that because we have already effective leadership in place who have been doing this work, and now it's just about bringing along the rest of our community."

That will involve a number of focus group meetings, surveys and public forums throughout the rest of 2021 to determine the best way to move forward. By this time next year, the One Region group expects to have a blueprint for addressing current challenges and identifying potential pitfalls so they can be avoided.

"We'll have a metric process which allows us to track how we progress into the future with a strategic set of actions," said Ranadip Bose, lead consultant with SB Friedman Development Advisors, which is helping with the focus groups and other information-gathering initiatives.

Bose said that while some issues will be tackled by local agencies, the group will also work with state agencies and legislators "to carry our actions forward."

Ron Mitchum, executive director of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, vowed that the study won't languish on a shelf when it's completed, saying it will be updated and referenced regularly so it become a "living document that we that we need to be constantly looking at, recognizing that even without the pandemic, things change so fast anymore."

The One Region study is a partnership of the COG, the Charleston Metro Chamber and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. It is meant to build on previous One Region initiatives including a study to show how the Charleston area competes with similar metro economies and a COVID-19 recovery plan.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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