Rock Hill will need to attract talent from Charlotte to make Knowledge Park viable, according to a new city-commissioned study.
The existing local pool of technology workers is not big enough to support the Knowledge Park effort initially, Creative Economic Development Consulting of Elkin, N.C., concluded in the study.
Marketing the Charlotte labor pool gives potential Knowledge Park employers access to a larger pool of qualified talent, according to the study.
A larger pool of talent is needed because Rock Hill’s current talent pool “is not large enough to attract a medium- to large-sized technology company requiring highly educated/highly skilled talent,” the study states.
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In addition, the study recommends Knowledge Park should be marketed to companies with 50 to 100 employees that have a mid-level set of technology skills. Possible prospects include information security, web development and data processing.
Leveraging the existing talent pool which has experience in education, health care and manufacturing is also recommended.
The shortfall of talent is not a surprise to Knowledge Park supporters who identified a qualified labor force as one of their challenges early on in the development process.
One of the basic forces driving Knowledge Park was to give graduates of Winthrop University and York Technical College a reason to stay in Rock Hill.
The Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. recently was awarded a $250,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Commerce to start a pilot program to develop a program to identify and train more local technology workers.
Knowledge Park is a two-pronged effort by the city, business leaders, and educators. One focus is the redevelopment of the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. site into mixed use development designed to attract technology-based businesses. Development of the site is seen a key link in connecting Winthrop University and downtown Rock Hill.
Knowledge Park also is an economic development strategy to bring high-tech jobs to the city.
“We have a real estate strategy in place, we now have to create the opportunity for technology businesses,” said Stephen Turner, the city’s economic development director. “It’s critical we find talent, it’s not enough to have real estate.”
Critical factors identified by the study include:
• A small pool of high-tech workers.
• Low educational attainment.
• 70 percent of Rock Hill residents working outside the city.
• Those commuting into the city generally are filling low-wage jobs.
“Rock Hill is considered a small town, small market and must leverage regional information,” to make its Knowledge Park strategy work, according to the study.
Turner said, “Rock Hill is perceived to be on the edge of the labor market” generally defined as the greater Charlotte area. Some high-tech companies have crossed the state line into the Fort Mill, Baxter Village area, but “no one has made the jump across the (Catawba) river.”
There is no consensus, however, on how to get people or companies to make that jump.
Some say the traditional economic recruitment strategies will work. Quality of life and higher pay attract people, say economists.
Others say the strategy is about creating the opportunity and talent will come.
“Pay really matters,” said David Hughes, director of the Clemson University Center for Economic Development. Other factors such as the cost of living, taxes and the chance for those commuting to Charlotte to remain at home, are things that also need to be stressed, Hughes said.
Lou Pantuosco, a labor economist at Winthrop University, said the hope is retaining people with talent or getting people with talent to move here. “It’s a slow process to earn a reputation,” he said. “We’re not the only place trying high tech.”
Selling the region is an established practice, said Mark Farris, York County economic development director. “The talent in the Charlotte region is greater than anywhere else in the two Carolinas,” he said.
Jason Broadwater and Agie Sundaram, owners of downtown technology firms, said Rock Hill already has a sufficient pool of talent, the challenge is creating the opportunity.
“The biggest missing piece is understanding how this new economy works,” said Sundaram, chief operating officer of Span Enterprises, a software development firm. Technology workers are often hired on a contract basis rather than salary and move from project to project, he said.
Broadwater, owner of Revenflo an Internet marketing and web development company, said three factors are needed to make Knowledge Park succeed: a creative cultural environment, a spirit of innovation and opportunity.
“Creating this kind of place is the economic development tool,” he said.
Having that environment will draw people to Rock Hill and those people will create jobs for others, he said.
Greg Rutherford, president of York Technical College and chairman of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp, said the intent of the Knowledge Park initiative is to provide York County residents with jobs.
“But with our current skills, in any industry, we would be hard pressed to grow,” he said. “We need to take the steps to reach critical mass.”
Among those steps, Rutherford said, is the Hive, an Internet marketing, communications, and technology training program for students from Winthrop and York Tech, and the iRock computer initiative for Rock Hill schools.
Through such programs, he said, “we are developing that culture that grasps the value of the Knowledge Park economy.”