Economic Development Summit forecasts optimistic outlook for 2019
FLORENCE, S.C. – In 2018, Florence County saw $89.17 million in new investments and 521 new jobs, said Lauren Stanton, assistant director of Florence County Economic Development Partnership, at the Coastal and Pee Dee Economic Development Summit 2019 held Wednesday. The event was hosted by U.S. Rep. Tom Rice and Florence-Darlington Technical College.
“The purpose of this event is to sharpen our focus on what we are all about,” Rice said in his opening remarks.
He said that two years ago nearly two-thirds of the people in South Carolina were saying that they didn’t think their children would have the same opportunities that they had.
“You have reversed that,” he said. “I appreciate what you do.”
North Eastern Strategic Alliance director Jeff McKay, the moderator of a discussion by local economic developers, said that approximately 10 years ago people were having discussions about what to do about double-digit unemployment.
Today, Rice said, the counties that he serves are at or below 6 percent unemployment. He said Florence is at 4 percent unemployment.
“I never thought that would happen. It is from your hard work,” he told the business leaders and economic development professionals gathered at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology Center at Florence Darlington Technical College. “Your efforts are paying off.”
Jennifer Fletcher, deputy director of the South Carolina Commerce Department, said she is “encouraged and very hopeful for the economic outlook for 2019.”
“We have come a long way in this state putting people back to work,” she said.
She said that since 2011 the total number of job created in South Carolina has been 108,192. The total investment has been $24,245,251,043.
The trend of a few years ago was for people to migrate to the rural areas, she said. The opposite is true now. People are moving back to the cities. Nearly twice as many new projects were created last year in urban areas than in rural areas, she said. The same is true of domestic projects versus international projects in the state.
She said the U.S. economy is slower coming into 2019, but it is still strong.
She said the big question mark for 2019 is how the automotive industry will be affected by President Donald Trump’s new tariffs.
She said all automotive and parts coming in will now have a tariff. It could hurt the automotive industry, she said. And in turn layoffs at smaller companies could occur.
She said projects activity for the latter part of 2018 was really flat.
The first six weeks of 2019 new projects are actually up.
“We are very optimistic,” she said.
She said automotive and agricultural industries are still strong.
“Our existing industries should be the most efficient and most profitable of their company’s portfolio,” she said.
She said South Carolina’s plants need to be the shining star for their parent companies.
Reiterated over and over at by members of the panel from technical colleges to local chambers to economic development partnerships was the importance of education to the economic development in South Carolina and the Pee Dee region.
Everyone said economic development begins with education and building a talented, skilled and viable workforce. That is necessary for bringing in new industry and businesses.
Representatives from technical colleges in the area spoke about their priorities for 2019 and the role their schools play in economic development. Harold Hawley represented Horry-Georgetown Technical College, Kyle Wagner represented Northeastern Technical College and Edward Bethea represented Florence-Darlington Technical College on the panel.
Bethea, the interim president of FDTC, said that when unemployment is low, the school’s enrollment usually goes down.
“We are not just about enrollment and teaching, but also about economic development,” he said.
He said that the Manufacturing Incubator Center, the brainchild of former FDTC President Charles Gould, is 100 percent occupied.
Bethea said the school is putting money into virtual reality technology to train people to enter the workforce. He said it also has specialized coaches to prepare students to be more successful for the workforce. He said the school is improving access to classes in rural areas, expanding dual-enrollment programs and partnerships between area high schools, FDTC and Francis Marion University.
He said the school is in the process of evaluating all of its programs.
Local chamber leaders were there to discuss their role in economic development and the outlook for their cities in 2019. On the panel were Mike Miller, president of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce; Karen Riordan, president and CEO of Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce; Cheryl Kilday, president and CEO of North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Bureau; Michelle Rogers, executive director of Mullins Chamber of Commerce; and Timothy Griffin, president of Pageland Chamber of Commerce.
In introducing the panel, Rice’s economic development director, Rodney Berry, said, “People go where there is something to do.”
Miller said Florence is bringing in more people, and that is evident by the number of hotels being built. He said hotel rooms have doubled. This year three more hotels will open and two or three are poised to break ground.
Miller said hospitality accounts for 11 percent of Florence’s business. He said that since 2008 that tax receipts for hotel rooms are up 64 percent. He said that is exceptional. He said that since the expansion at the Florence Center bookings are up 25 percent.
He also talked about the tremendous growth in downtown Florence, growth in manufacturing and the plan to improve the Florence Regional Airport.
A panel of economic development professionals was moderated by McKay. The panel included representatives from eight counties. They were Ron Munnerlyn, Marlboro; Brian Tucker, Georgetown; Sandy Davis, Horry; Julie Norman, Marion; Frank Willis, Darlington; Kim Burch, Chesterfield, Clay Young, Dillon; and Lauren Stanton, Florence.
Each of the panel members talked about the growth in the cities and towns in their counties. They discussed what businesses and industries look for when considering locating or expanding in an area. This includes whether there is an infrastructure in place, access to an interstate, adequate workforce and available training.
Some said they lacked buildings to entice businesses to their area while others said they didn’t have the workforce to support some growth or a nearby interstate, which is important to some industries. Others said they were poised and ready.
Willis said Darlington County didn’t create many jobs last year but created investment dollars.
He said 2019 has already started off better. He said that in the first two months, the county has two really good prospects. He hinted that one project had the potential to be the most significant ever in Darlington County. Willis said they have the infrastructure in place with three industrial parks, the newest in Hartsville, and access to two interstates.
He said the high schools are partnering with the surrounding colleges and technical schools.
Stanton said they are focused on making Florence County a place people will want to live, work and stay.
She talked about the many things the county has to offer that would bring new business and people here, such as ArtFields and the Tobacco Festival in Lake City as well as Florence’s revitalized downtown.
She said the SiMT facility is a fantastic resource.
She said Honda just celebrated its 20th year in Florence County last year and introduced a new product this year.