Berkeley County’s recruiting sizzles

Charleston Post and Courier
Ron Menchaca, Staff Writer
March 1, 2002

If Berkeley County’s industrial recruiting is any indicator, the economy is rebounding like Shaquille O’Neal.

“Right now we are courting about 18 prospects,” Berkeley County Supervisor Jim Rozier said Wednesday. “Things are heating up.”

Combined, the companies could create from 3,000 to 4,000 new jobs, he said. He estimated the county typically lands one-third of its prospects.

The numbers may sound staggering, but one local economist said they reflect a building momentum in the national economy. “There is no doubt that we are seeing a fairly dramatic pickup in development,” said Al Parish, an economist at Charleston Southern University. “So that’s no surprise.”

A few years ago, it was not uncommon for county leaders to average one new industry announcement per week. Then the national economy tanked. “It’s been a year since we had one,” Rozier said, adding that as recently as three months ago, the county was talking with just a few companies.

David Ginn, president and CEO of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, said his business recruiting reports from recent months have told “a very different story in that just about every company is moving forward with their plans to contract, expand or relocate.”

That doesn’t mean the economy is back to normal, only that it’s recovered enough that companies are making growth decisions again, Ginn said.

Two of Berkeley’s prospects appear to be doing just that, advancing this week to a key stage of negotiation, what business recruiters call identification. Berkeley County Council on Monday officially recognized Project D and Project Cypress – code names for unidentified companies.

Project D is a manufacturing company that’s scouting Berkeley County and others for its new plant, Rozier said. “We think we are the preferred site.”

He described Project Cypress as a possible expansion of an existing manufacturing industry, “one that’s been in the county a long time.”

Both would create “a decent number” of new manufacturing jobs, Rozier said, putting the odds of signing both companies at about 80 percent.

Parish said it’s encouraging that the county is talking with 18 companies, particularly if the leading two are manufacturers, which represent a sector that got “walloped” heading into recession. “Manufacturing has finally turned a corner.”

While county leaders are relieved to see signs of economic activity, some council members on Monday questioned why details of the projects were scarce. Rozier, council’s chairman, is the only member who knows the identities of the companies.

He said state law protects such information. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act allows for confidential business recruiting negotiations, but it doesn’t say the information can’t be shared with fellow council members. Rozier said he keeps council in the dark at the request of the companies, who usually demand such privacy for competitive reasons. “The more people I tell, the more possibilities there are for leaks.”

Though it reveals little about a company’s identity or plans, the county’s official recognition of a project – albeit coded – allows a prospective company to recoup early project-related investments should it sign a deal with the county.

State law allows for a 60-day reach-back period from the date of identification. Any investment a company makes during that period can later be folded into the incentive package offered by the county.

Identification is a crucial step in negotiations, said Charleston attorney Jeremy Cook, who often walks counties and companies through economic incentive deals.

Rozier agreed that identification is a good sign, estimating that 40 percent of companies that have reached that stage with Berkeley County wound up there. Recognizing a company is also a way for the county to prove it’s a contender in competitive projects, said Cook of the law firm Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd. “It shows that the county is interested, but doesn’t bind them. They have a lot to gain and nothing to lose.”

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