Positioning Dorchester County for Success

‘Missing Opportunities’

Summerville Journal Scene

Story by: Jenna-Ley Harrison

Friday, August 19, 2016

Now more than ever the critical conversation of how to increase Dorchester County’s economic impact, appeal and stake in the realm of regional industry is taking place among business leaders and county officials.

It’s been the focus of discussion for years but has recently been studied as a vital piece of the puzzle for the Charleston region’s overall economic growth, as community members strive to implement the global competitiveness strategy “One Region.”

Tuesday, a three-member panel, including Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, answered tough questions from a crowd of local business owners and county officials eager to hear a solution to the town and county’s limited economic growth.

“This is one of the most critical topics facing Dorchester County over the next 30 to 40 years,” Bennett said.

Compared to neighbors Charleston and Berkeley counties, Dorchester is behind and in particular in need of closing the gap in workforce skills and increasing industry and office space. But the problems exist “without an easy solution,” said Economic Development Director John Truluck.

While the county is working hard to add speculative buildings in various locations, including Winding Wood Commerce Park near St. George, some of the sites aren’t quite ready.

“We’re missing some opportunities because they’re not clear,” Truluck said. “They may be missing one piece of infrastructure — may not have road access, may not have wastewater. …We’ve got a list of those we’re already working on.” There also needs to be a bigger balance between housing and office units. County officials said it’s vital to preserve rural land in the county just for use as future office space.

“We’ve almost got to protect ourselves from complete residential takeover,” Truluck said. “We’ve got something nobody else has, but we need to learn how to market it and draw business here.” And once buildings are erected, more will come.

“The only way to get more buildings is to get more buildings,” Truluck said.

To help tackle the problem of minimal infrastructure, the county is also working on better marketing techniques — starting with a new logo, which was unveiled at this week’s meeting. Created by The Design Group of Charleston, the new design incorporates the state outline overlapped by a Palmetto tree.

According to Katie Arrington, GOP candidate for House District 94, which includes part of Summerville, “economic development is a true community effort.” As part of the industry realm in Charleston, she’s passionate about further development in her own community, too. But without a workforce, businesses can’t survive. And that workforce must be properly educated, another issue for the county.

Arrington said the saying is true that “it takes a village” to educate local youth and guide them on the right path to success. But that may not mean pushing students to obtain four-year degrees. Area industry now largely dictates employee skill sets in more specialized subjects — ones that require only a two-year degree.

“Reforming our antiquated education system to allow for more innovation needs to happen to ensure we have a workforce ready for the future, because the future is here already,” Arrington said.

Truluck echoed her plea.

“There’s a segment of the population that doesn’t have the skills…(and) they’re not moving up the ladder,” he said.

It was an “aha moment” for him, Truluck said, when he realized the county needs to better advocate for more access to two-year degrees and stress to students it’s a viable option for a prosperous career.

In order to accomplish that goal, the county needs a technical school campus. Trident Technical College already has campuses in Berkeley and Charleston counties, but not in Dorchester County, the “largest county (in the state) by far without a significant technical college presence,” Truluck said. The need is not a new idea; it’s been talked about for years in various county circles, though still hasn’t come to fruition. Bennett said there’s no timetable either for when it will happen. He did agree, however, that such schools are necessary for today’s educational realm.

“Tech schools are the jewel and next best opportunity for us in South Carolina across the board,” Bennett said.

According to county officials, more than half of local high school graduates enroll in Trident Tech. “But we’re telling them to go get on that nightmare traffic on I-26 to fight to get to the main campus,” Truluck said.

On a positive note, county officials said people moving to the county in recent years have shown higher skill sets for area jobs than current residents.

Other solutions for closing the skills gap include industry collaborations with colleges, an increase in student apprenticeships. and motivating parents to get more involved. County officials and panelists encouraged parents to take their teens to industry sites to see what’s going on and have school officals bring industry leaders into schools.

One area the county does do well in, is business retention and expansion, though “not always the sexy part of economic development,” Truluck said.

He said between 60 and 80 percent of job growth stems from existing business.

The One Region strategy is also looking at strengths and weaknesses in surrounding counties, with the goal of creating a more cooperative and unified tri-county that retains its unique character and community members but also attracts more competing industry, employeers, investors and workers.