State tourism, commerce departments boost cooperation

By James T. Hammond
Published Jan. 30, 2013

The chiefs of two of South Carolina’s most important business support agencies — the Commerce Department and Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department— said their agencies are working together like never before to leverage economic development.

PRT Director Duane Parrish
PRT Director Duane Parrish
Secretary of Commerce Bobby HittSecretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt
Duane Parrish, the PRT director, and Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt spoke in a panel discussion today at the Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism, explaining how the two agencies are cooperating to utilize the assets of each other in bringing investment and creating jobs in South Carolina.

Parrish set the tone for the discussion when he said, “No one ever moved a business here without first being a visitor.”

Hitt recalled that two BMW executives, both of whom would later lead the company, told him that the tie-breaker among potential sites for their North American plant was a waitress in a South Carolina pizza restaurant.

“She was very nice to us and she didn’t even know who we were,” one of the BMW executives told Hitt, who used the story to illustrate how important the hospitality industry can be in winning over potential manufacturing investors.

“We are hospitable people and people feel comfortable here,” Hitt said.

Growing cooperation
But cooperation between Parrish and Hitt has moved well beyond simply acknowledging the value of everyday hospitality.

John Durst, president and CEO of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, noted that today’s panel discussion marked the first time a sitting South Carolina commerce secretary has participated in the state’s flagship tourism conference.

Hitt said staff members of both agencies meet regularly to plan how they can work together to build up both tourism assets and the state’s manufacturing base.

But Hitt could not contain his feeling that the reception potential investors receive when they visit South Carolina weighs heavily on their large business decisions.

“I’ve had people site a plant here because their son or daughter went to college here,” Hitt said.

The synergy between manufacturing and tourism becomes clear when new manufacturing jobs create income for families, who then have the possibility of spending some of that new-found wealth on a beach vacation in the state, Hitt said.

Parrish said the rural communities in the state can increase their stake in the tourism sector by “looking deep inside their communities” for assets and authentic experiences that they can share with visitors. He said examples of rural tourism that give such experiences include the abundant freshwater fishing and boating opportunities; the African-American history trail; and the state’s rich culture of barbecue establishments.

“South Carolina has the longest deer-hunting season in the country,” Parrish added, noting that broad stretches of the state offer hunting experiences.

Success breeds success
Hitt said small towns and rural communities can use tourism to make themselves more attractive as sites for new manufacturing plants.

“People want to visit small towns that look successful and have something unique,” Hitt said.

James Chavez, president and CEO of the Montgomery County, Tenn., Economic Development Council, urged rural communities and small towns to be prepared when site consultants come calling to evaluate potential plant sites.

“Companies are coming out of a recession, they need to expand their capacity, and they are sitting on a lot of cash,” Chavez said.

And Parrish urged those communities to “be authentic and proud of your communities.”

Hitt said companies are making decisions faster than ever before. He noted that the average car in America is more than 11 years old, and that manufacturers are moving quickly to create capacity to sell vehicles into this pent-up demand.

The secretary said one community lost out on an opportunity to land a manufacturer because it was going to cost more than $10 million to run a sewer line to the plant. In contrast, counties such as Laurens, Orangeburg and Sumter have landed major new manufacturing plants because they taxed themselves, built infrastructure and had sites that were attractive to the manufacturers.

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