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Panel: Infrastructure woes threaten economic development

Transportation
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Most businesses need three things to compete: a place to work, people to do the work and way to ship that work to their customers.

“South Carolina is an optimal place for business when you see the resources that are spread through the state,” said Mike Briggs, president and CEO of the Central SC Alliance. “We have a port, major interstate systems, two international airports and a UPS Hub (at Columbia Metropolitan Airport); these things put us in position to be competitive with whatever a potential business is looking for.”

Briggs offered his remarks while joining local economic development leaders for a panel discussion about what makes the Midlands successful in attracting new business, at a Power Breakfast hosted by The Columbia Regional Business Report on Feb. 23 at the Doubletree by Hilton.

Joining Briggs were Ryan Coleman, director of the city of Columbia’s Office of Economic Development; Mike Eades, economic development director of Lexington County; and Nelson Lindsay, director of Global Business Development for the S.C. Department of Commerce.

Many state business leaders point to the condition of roads and bridges as a disadvantage when businesses are looking to move into South Carolina. When asked whether the state has lost any project because of the roads, Eades said he has witnessed lost projects in other states because of the transportation system.

“I had a recent experience in Louisiana where we lost two projects because they had problems moving product in and out, and they had trouble getting people to and from work,” said Eades, who previously served as president and CEO of the Ascension Economic Development Corp. in Baton Rouge, La., before joining Lexington County. “I’ve seen it, and it hurts.”

Many state business leaders took to the Statehouse floor in February to show support for the “S.C. Infrastructure and Economic Development Reform Act,” (H.3516), which proponents say provides for a long-term funding program to repair the state’s crumbling highways and bridges.

The bill, which includes a 10-cents-per-gallon increase in the fuels tax phased in over five years, is expected to generate about $600 million annually for highways and bridges. It was approved overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives and was being considered by the Senate at press time.

The past two years, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has successfully filibustered and blocked Senate votes on any road bills.

Additionally, previous roads bills were throttled by former Gov. Nikki Haley’s threat to veto any legislation that did not include a significant cut in the state personal income tax rate.

Her successor, Gov. Henry McMaster, regards an increase in the gas tax to be a last resort.

The state fuels tax is currently set at 16.75 cents per gallon, which is the second-lowest rate in the United States and has not been raised since it was adopted 30 years ago.

In a Statehouse news conference, Michelin North America President Pete Selleck said that in the five years since his company began advocating for road repairs, the situation has only worsened.

“We believe that we are at the end of the road now,” Selleck said. “If we do not come up with a solid plan this year that is sufficient and sustainable over the long term, that in the long term it will do significant damage to this state. Economic development will seize up, and that’s critical to job development as we look forward to the coming decades.”

Lindsay said he did not know of a time when South Carolina lost a project because of the roads, but he said he recognizes that it is an issue.

“We have to sell transportation as a whole, and focus on the other assets this state brings,” Lindsay said.

The issue the panel focused on most was creating a willing, stable, prepared workforce.

“Everyone we talk to needs a place to put the business, whether that’s land or buildings, and they want to have a workforce that will meet their needs,” Briggs said.

Workforce readiness was a key component mentioned by all four panelists. Briggs pointed to Midlands Technical College, along with the state’s other technical colleges, as assets for potential business workforce.

Coleman talked about the technical companies in the downtown Columbia area.

“We see IT businesses needing people with technical training that can do the job,” Coleman said, “people with four-year degrees ready for commercial jobs and IT training. We have a pipeline of University of South Carolina students prepared for knowledge-economy jobs.”

Lindsay agreed that providing a capable workforce is No. 1.

“If you can’t find people to make the product, then distribution of the product becomes secondary,” Lindsay said. “Finding the talent needed is always going to be an issue. We’ve been successful recruiting major companies, but the pipeline of talent becomes smaller.”

Everyone on the panel agreed that time has become a contributing factor when it comes to businesses making moves. What once took years has been condensed to months.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, but ultimately it’s speed to market,” Coleman said. “They look for things that are in place like infrastructure, spec buildings, business-friendly regulatory codes, tax burdens, moving workforce, any of those cost you can mitigate plays favorably. It’s a balancing act for a company weighing these factors against each other.”

Eades said he is basically in the “don’t lose” business.

“Companies have a list, and they are looking for reasons not to move to certain areas,” Eades said. “If you don’t have what they are looking for, then you’re crossed off the list. Nobody wins, you just try to be the last one left on the list.”

Reach Travis Boland at 803-726-7543.

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