As president and CEO of the I-77 Alliance, Rich Fletcher is responsible for promoting York, Chester, Fairfield and Richland counties.
Yet in conversations, Fletcher is likely to first talk about Charlotte, Columbia, or even Charleston.
It’s deliberate, says Fletcher, who was hired in September. You have to talk about things people know, he says.
“Rock Hill doesn’t jump out at you internationally,” Fletcher said. But if you say Rock Hill is South Charlotte, a connection is made, he said.
Karlisa Parker, economic development director Chester County who has traveled internationally to represent Chester and South Carolina, said international economic development prospects “don’t think of us as North Carolina and South Carolina, they just say ‘Carolina.’ It’s an education process to make them understand.”
The I-77 Alliance was formed in November 2013 by officials in York, Chester and Fairfield counties to market the I-77 corridor. Richland County recently joined.
Fletcher, the alliance’s first president and CEO, brings 15 years of economic development experience. He most recently managed economic development and local government activities for the SCANA energy company, which serves parts of the Carolinas and Georgia. SCANA is the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.
He also worked for the North Eastern Strategic Alliance based in Florence, which serves nine counties in northeast South Carolina and the state Department of Commerce.
The variety of experience, he says, means he knows how to work with utilities, local governments and the people who find new locations for companies.
The alliance’s focus is to develop business prospects for economic development officials in the four counties.
The 100-mile stretch between Charlotte and Columbia is a “perfect industrial corridor,” said Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary. It “doesn’t interfere with the bedroom communities and towns either to the east and west.
“What we are seeing is that the greater Charlotte market is moving south, and Columbia is expanding north,” Hitt wrote in a recent email to The Herald.
“It’s like having a 100-mile industrial park. You’ve got good logistics infrastructure with Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the proximity to the Port of Charleston.”
The alliance’s focus will be to develop economic development prospects for the four counties. The key, Fletcher said, is to talk to companies before they decide to expand or move.
Keeping the pipeline full of prospects is essential, said David Swenson, York County’s new economic development director. Swenson replaced Mark Farris, who left for Greenville, as the county’s economic development director in September.
Fletcher anticipates working closely with the state Department of Commerce on recruiting prospects, especially in Asia and Europe. Fletcher said he will rely on international companies that have already located in the region to be among his best recruiters.
“Existing businesses are our best sales force,” he said.
With the alliance still in its formative stages, developing prospects won’t start until next year.
Step one for Fletcher and the economic development directors from the four counties is to get to know each other and to learn what each county has to offer economic development prospects. The alliance is different from similar ones in the state because economic development directors from the four participating counties are board members.
There are 33 members on the alliance’s board, divided among the public and private sectors. Membership includes county council members, representatives from York and Midlands technical colleges and business leaders.
Parker, economic development director for Chester County, said being on the board means she and her colleagues have a voice in setting priorities. While her first priority will be to continue to sell Chester, Parker said if she doesn’t have what a prospect needs, she will recommend alliance partners.
The successful recruitment of Giti Tire to Chester this year has set high expectations for the I-77 Alliance. “The alliance can capitalize on that momentum,” Hitt said.
Giti plans to build a $560 million plant and create about 1,700 jobs in Chester during the next decade. The plant will be at the county’s “mega site,” a sprawling 1,000-plus acre parcel off Interstate 77, bounded by S.C. 9 to the north and Old Richburg Road to the south.
The site is ideal for Giti. The interstate gives the tire plant access to the company’s warehouses in Georgia and Texas. Company officials also cited access to the port of Charleston and airports in Columbia and Charlotte in making their decision.
The Giti plant will be visible from I-77, helping to promote the corridor, Parker said.
Parker said it would be great if other businesses related to tire production moved to Chester County, but the companies could also find what they need in Fairfield, York or Richland.
Fletcher is also raising funding. The alliance is a public-private partnership. The legislature allocated $675,000 to the alliance this fiscal year, which must be matched dollar-for-dollar by private funds. The money can only be used for economic development, not routine operating costs. About 20 percent of the alliance’s budget will be for operating expenses, he said. Fletcher’s salary is $120,000 annually.
The alliance is also scheduled to develop its strategic plan in December, which will help focus its recruitment efforts.