Financial future not so cloudy

Led by research economist Frank Hefner, the college's newly created Office of Economic Analysis will enable the chamber to resurrect its quarterly and annual business outlooks next year.

Hefner to take over local economic forecasts

College of Charleston researchers will help predict where the local economy is heading under a partnership with the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which has been without a forecaster since its former expert was arrested earlier this year.

Led by research economist Frank Hefner, the college's newly created Office of Economic Analysis will enable the chamber to resurrect its quarterly and annual business outlooks next year. The forecasts predict the growth or decline of key regional indicators, such as employment statistics, airline traffic and construction permits.

The first forecast to be issued under Hefner is expected to be ready in early 2008.

"The forecast has been a very successful project for the chamber because it's provided the business community with information they need," said Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy at the chamber. "We need someone who has regional economic forecast experience, and Frank Hefner is very qualified for that."

For the past 15 years, Hefner has helped guide the state's Board of Economic Advisors. He also taught and did research during his seven years at the University of South Carolina's business school. Most recently, he completed a study for two state agen- cies on the economic impact of recycling.

Hefner said he will use the same data that chamber staffers have been collecting since 1990, mostly from government sources, to make an educated guess about future short-term economic trends. Once processed, the statistics will be reviewed by a volunteer panel representing various industries to see whether any unforeseen influences — such as the arrival of a new airline, for instance — could affect the predictions.

"You can't just sit in an ivory tower," Hefner said. "You have to talk to the people in what I call the trenches."

Marcia Snyder will serve as a research associate for Hefner while continuing to teach economics at the college.

For years, the face of the fore- cast was the flamboyant Al Parish, a seemingly tireless chamber volunteer and Charleston Southern University economics professor. He crunched the data until his arrest in April for allegedly bilking investors out of an estimated $90 million in a failed investment scheme. Parish is awaiting trial on house arrest.

After that scandal broke, the chamber asked CSU if it wanted to continue that relationship, but it declined, said Charles Van Rysselberge, the chamber's chief executive.

"Our first choice was to continue the joint partnership with Charleston Southern," Van Rysselberge said.

Even before that, College of Charleston President George Benson had offered up school resources to help with the forecasts. Some professors already had been working with the chamber on various tourism studies.

"This became a natural pro- gression of ways that we could work together," Van Rysselberge said.

The chamber stood by the integrity of Parish's work with its Center for Business Research.

"A review of the past five annual forecasts shows that it has a remarkable rate of performance," Van Rysselberge said.

The new chamber-college partnership follows a decision by the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments to replace Parish. The council has tapped Don Schunk of Coastal Carolina University as its new research guru and prognosticator.

"It was always Coastal Carolina's plan for us to play a larger role in what was happening in terms of economic forecasting along the Grand Strand," said Schunk, a former USC economist. "It's good to have someone local."