Monday, November 30, 2015

Grow! Grow! Grow!

A few years ago, when I first offered the privilege of serving your city council as city manager, I reflected on the challenges facing our city and the need for significant economic growth to support our city, reduce future utility costs, and provide a better quality of life for the people who choose to call this place home.

And I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we had not grown. Clinton is a great place to live. We have set aside land for industrial and retail development. We’ve plowed roads into undeveloped territory to spur development and growth. We are the site where two interstates come together which, by some counts, bring 30,000 cars a day past our city. Our county is growing. We have not. What are we doing wrong?

The first step, with the support of city council, was to change our structure at city hall. We eliminated the assistant city manager position and used a portion of the savings to hire a Director of Community and Economic Development. In my view, we have leaders for two of the most important things that we do: Public Safety and Public Works, but if economic development is so critical to our organization shouldn’t we task a person with working on it day in and day out?

The next step was to take our show on the road. We met with county officials to try to identify why we had not grown as quickly as other areas, and we then met with officials at the State Department of Commerce. Mayor McLean worked with Governor Haley and he and I met with her her in Clinton to discuss economic development. All three, the county, the state department of commerce, and the Governor, told us the same thing: While we had invested in economic development we had not done as much as other communities to promote growth in our city.  It takes more than open land, more than roads, more than people, and more than two interstates coming together to make a community a place that grows.

Let’s start with the interstates. Yes, two interstates that connect three of the largest communities in our state intersect in our city. But I-95 and I-26 come together between Orangeburg and Summerville and both interstates carry more traffic in that area than 385 and 26 do here, and there is no growth where those two interstates intersect. In fact, you can’t stop and get gas or a hamburger or get a hotel room at the intersection of I-26 and I-95, and you can do those things here. Having two interstates come together in your community helps people leave your community faster if you haven’t invested in making sure that the land at those intersections is developable, that adequate water, sewer, electric, natural gas, and communications capacity exist at the site, and that an adequate workforce exists in an area near the intersection of the two interstates.

The second thing to look at is our industrial parks. In Clinton, our industrial parks are nice. We have roads that go into the woods. Plenty of land is available at reasonable prices. Our competition has gone further than that. When you visit the industrial parks in our region to evaluate the competition, which many of your city and county leaders have done, you will witness a completely different level of industrial park. The water, sewer, natural gas, and electric utilities are already in place. Streetlights light the roads at night. Landscaping makes the area inviting. Signage announces to the world that this is a great place to be. We haven’t taken our parks to that level and that is one reason that we are not able to land the businesses that choose to locate in other industrial parks in other communities.

The third thing to look at is workforce. Having quality people to work in a manufacturing facility is the most important requirement of all, and while our community has improved workforce development programs dramatically, including funding a scholarship for all city residents who are Clinton High graduates to continue their education at Piedmont Tech, we need to continue to develop career programs that help get our students ready for jobs in our community.

So what do we do? Here’s my opinion. First, we have to accept the fact that not everyone sees our community the same way we do. For a manufacturing company that want to be within 30 miles of a passenger airport, or the port, or downtown Greenville, or BMW – we do not appear to be the ideal location. Secondly, we have to improve the product we have available. Where our competition has spent funds on improving industrial parks, we must also. We must work with the county, the region, and the state to prove that we are a great place to do business.

We have to work together to make our community a great place to live and a great place to do business. Many of the initiatives that are happening right now, including plans to improve our industrial parks, construct recreational facilities, and improve our downtown appearance and business climate, will help make our community a place business will want to call home rather than a place they zoom by on the interstate without giving our city, and our citizens, a second thought.