I-77 Alliance, member counties take on joint planning

The I-77 Alliance and its member counties – Chester, Fairfield, Richland and York – are planning together in an effort to bring more jobs to the region and to take advantage of resources in every county.

The idea is not new. The U.S. Department of Commerce requires the drafting of regional economic development plans in order for the regions to qualify for Economic Development Administration grants.

What is different, participants say, is the enthusiasm and cooperation from people in the four countiesthat have historically been competitors.

“It’s a different mindset, a healthy mindset,” said Rick Jiran, Duke Energy’s district manager, who has worked with economic development officials in the region for years. Jiran is chairman of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce and a member of the York County Economic Development Board.

The process recognizes a reality economic developers have known for years: Companies rarely consider county lines when making decisions about where to locate or expand facilities. Even state lines blur if the incentive packages offered are similar.

This is the first strategic plan for the recently formed alliance, which is in its start-up phase. While it is early in the process, the alliance has created a mental picture of the region, says Jerry Helms, vice president of operations at Carowinds. “We are on the map.”

It’s also a chance for each of the four counties to update their development plans.

All five plans – the alliance’s and the individual counties’ – will have some common elements, but there will also be sections unique to each partner, said Crystal Morphis, of Creative Economic Development Consulting of Elkin, N.C.

The oft-cited example of uniqueness is a cluster of insurance companies in Richland County and the opportunity to build on that.

The project cited for potentially having the biggest regional impact is the Giti tire plant coming to Chester County. Giti announced last June it would build a plant near I-77 and S.C. 9.

“In the face of high unemployment, economic change, so many counties let go of their vision (in order) to fill an immediate need,” Morphis said. “It takes fortitude and political will to stay the course.”

Chester County did, and the result is Giti, a project that “will change the economic development landscape,” Morphis said.

Giti also gives more reasons for the alliance and the four counties to make automotive-related businesses a target for recruitment.

The York County Economic Development Board started the planning process this past week. Over three hours, members discussed the areas’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, as well as what may be missing from the mix. They also examined the role incentives play in recruiting industry.

Among the ideas discussed were better and more proactive planning, a cluster of targeted industries that could survive an economic downturn, and an incentive strategy based on “behaviors the community wants.”

“We need to have a proactive development rather than reactive,” said York County Councilman Chad Williams.

Morphis suggested targeting a variety of companies so that if one industry segment suffers from a change in the economy, others in the community don’t.

Currently the targeted industries for recruitment in York County are automotive manufacturing, plastic manufacturing, aviation and aerospace manufacturing, distribution, machinery manufacturing and financial services processing.

Karlisa Parker, director of economic development for Chester County, said the benefit of a regional approach may be better planning at the interchanges along I-77. Several of the interchanges have land available for development, but the properties lack water, sewer and other resources. A regional approach could help address that, she said.

“The way it’s being done, we can see the broad picture,” she said. “See the things we are and what we are not. We’re not in the position to offer headquarters or back office space, but others (in the alliance) are.”

Morphis has started her work in each of the counties and with the alliance. If the process keeps to a projected timetable, the updated strategic plans should be done by June, she said.