By Chuck Crumbo
Published Oct. 25, 2012
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt says a number of economic development projects are waiting to be announced.
“We have more projects queued up at the Department of Commerce than anyone can remember,” Hitt said at the Oct. 17 session of the 2012 Central Carolina Commercial Real Estate Market Forecast. “We’re simply waiting for a board to vote. It’s not a question of where, but when.”
Companies are waiting for some indication of which way the country is headed after presidential election and if Congress decides to do anything about the impending “fiscal cliff.”
“Fiscal cliff” refers to the dilemma the federal government faces at the end of the year when terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 take over at midnight Dec. 31, triggering tax hikes, and elimination of certain tax breaks.
|S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt|
Also, across-the-board budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years will greet the new year as the debt-ceiling deal of 2011 goes into effect.
South Carolina, though, appears poised for growth providing that the country doesn’t fall off the fiscal cliff.
“The good news is that South Carolina is not in the same situation as the other 49 states,” Hitt said. “We have gained our momentum in South Carolina.”
As an example, Hitt noted that back in January 2011 when Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration took office, the Commerce Department was handling about two dozen requests for information a month. Now, the agency is receiving more than 40 requests.
The department’s staff also has been working to “rebuild” relationships with key manufacturing groups and site consultants.
“For many decades a lot of these site consultants have been walking past South Carolina. They didn’t even give us a look,” Hitt said.
“Now, we’re getting a look. It’s the same as in sales — the more looks you get, the more chances for sales you get.”
South Carolina also is gaining a reputation for being the state that takes action, Hitt said.
One example he cited was the Legislature’s decision to set aside $300 million to fully fund the deepening of Charleston Harbor in the event the federal government doesn’t share in the project’s costs.
“We are the state that takes action,” Hitt said. “We’ve told the world we will be ready.”
The state’s allocation of the funding for harbor deepening is unprecedented in the United States, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority.
The project will deepen the harbor beyond its current level of 45 feet. Now, the Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District is studying the environmental, economic and engineering impacts of deepening the harbor.
Ports officials have said 50 feet is the depth needed to accept larger post-Panamax ships that will have better access to East Coast ports after the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2015. The harbor deepening could be completed by 2019.
Hitt said the state still faces the challenge of developing its workforce to provide labor to sustain companies that have operations in South Carolina.
“We’re very good in South Carolina at the point of sale,” Hitt said. “We can make it happen generally in record time,” he added, noting Boeing Co. cranked up its 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston six months ahead of schedule.
However, the state has thousands of jobs, primarily in manufacturing, that go unfilled because many people who are out of work don’t have the necessary training and skills, Hitt said. According to a survey of The Conference Board Help Wanted Online, South Carolina had 58,000 job openings in September.
The state, though, is working on the problem with an initiative to pull together South Carolina agencies like Commerce and the Department of Employment and Workforce to work with businesses to find out what type of training and skills they need in new employees.
Still, worries about how the election and whether or not Congress will deal with the huge budget and tax issues are putting a damper on what might happen in the near future.
Most companies are holding off on investing in expansions and new facilities, Hitt said.
“There is $10 trillion sitting on the sidelines doing nothing,” he said. “People don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Staff writer Matt Tomsic contributed to this report.