State of the Low Country:Haynie Targets High-Paying Jobs Mount Pleasant’s New Mayor Focuses on Economic Development During First Months In Office
May 10, 2018 08:11AM
By Makayla Gay
By Brian Sherman
During the past two election cycles, Mount Pleasant voters ushered in a new mayor and Council, in part a reaction to the town’s population explosion and the traffic congestion and crowded schools that came along with it.
Did that mean that the town was no longer going to grow and that “closed for business” signs would be erected at the base of the Ravenel Bridge, on Highway 41 at the Berkeley County line, and somewhere south of Awendaw on Highway 17?
Not true, according to first-term Mayor Will Haynie, who spent at least a portion of his first two months in office studying ways to diversify the town’s tax base and recruit companies that will give local residents the opportunity to live in Mount Pleasant and drive, bike, or even walk to work.
“We’ve jumped all over economic development in the first 60 days,” said Haynie, who was elected to the Council in 2015 and claimed the mayor’s seat in November 2017.
He pointed out that he has restructured the Council’s Economic Development Committee, which now includes council members Bob Brimmer, Joe Bustos, and Kathy Landing, as well as Mount Pleasant Waterworks Commission Chairman Rick Crosby. The mayor is also looking at the possibility of establishing a “kitchen cabinet,” an informal body of advisors who will help him establish an economic development plan and attract the type of businesses that are right for Mount Pleasant.
Haynie and Mount Pleasant Business and Tourism Manager Amy Livingston agreed that the town’s recruiting efforts should target specialty logistics, IT, software, and corporate headquarters. The mayor said he has already spoken with two companies that are thinking about moving to Mount Pleasant.
“I’ve had one-on-one meetings with a high-tech medical services company that needs 16,000 square feet of space, and we have a place where they can locate,” he said, adding that a local resident is considering moving the headquarters of a technology-based company to Mount Pleasant.
“It’s time to emphasize high-paying jobs in Mount Pleasant,” Haynie added. “That will cut down on commuting to Daniel Island, North Charleston, and Charleston.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures provided by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, in 2015, of the 34,075 employed Mount Pleasant residents, 25,653 – 75.3 percent – commuted to work outside the town limits, while 8,422 – 24.7 percent – lived in Mount Pleasant and worked there as well. Conversely, of the 30,480 people employed in Mount Pleasant, 22,058 – 72.4 percent – lived outside of town.
These numbers don’t include other areas of East Cooper, such as Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, nor do they take into account “donut holes” that are surrounded by Mount Pleasant but not actually in the town.
For Livingston, convincing companies to put down roots in Mount Pleasant is a cooperative effort that starts with the state Commerce Department and includes the Charleston County Economic Development Department and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
She added that it’s vitally important for a town to have a strong online image, because most companies are looking for specific demographics. In many cases, they won’t even contact a town until they’ve done their research and determined that it fits their needs.
“They don’t even talk with us unless they have a serious interest,” Livingston said. “You won’t even see them until you are on their short list.”
As important as it is to attract new businesses, Livingston said most of the job creation in Mount Pleasant comes from companies that already have a presence in the town. She pointed out that several businesses have expanded their footprint in Mount Pleasant recently, including JEAR Logistics and Choate Construction, which now has its regional headquarters in Mount Pleasant. MTAG Services is headquartered in Mount Pleasant as well, a bonus for the town’s finances.
“Any work they do where they don’t have a business license means more revenue for Mount Pleasant,” Livingston said. “The business license fee is based on gross revenue.
“We know the cost of living is high in Mount Pleasant,” she added. “That’s why we’re interested in high-wage companies. Hospitality and service employees are important, but so are jobs that allow people to make enough money to live here. That’s one of the reasons we look at corporate headquarters.”
Livingston noted that under its Economic Development Incentives Grant Program, the town can offer financial incentives to companies that meet the following criteria:
They create or retain a substantial number of quality jobs;
They plan to invest a significant amount of money;
They generate a significant amount of revenue from outside the tri-county area;
They qualify under the town’s Economic Development Strategy.
Under the program, companies can be reimbursed all or part of their impact fees, building permit fees, and plan review fees. Businesses that relocate to Mount Pleasant or expand also are eligible to be reimbursed for their business license fees: up to 100 percent in years one and two; up to 75 percent in year three; up to 50 percent in year four; and up to 25 percent in year five.
The decision on which benefits are granted to a company lies with the Town Council, and Livingston pointed out that no reimbursements are granted until a company receives its certificate of occupancy. She said since 2002, the town has awarded more than $500,000 to local companies.
She added that Charleston County might help out as well.
“I’ll reach out to the county to see if there’s some incentives they might be able to offer. We work seamlessly. We reach out to them and vice versa,” she explained.
Livingston said her most daunting challenge in recruiting businesses is the cost and availability of land. There are only 719 acres remaining in Mount Pleasant that are zoned Commercial or Economic Development. One part of town that might work out well is the area along Long Point Road between Interstate 526 and the South Carolina Ports Authority’s Wando Welch terminal. Dubbed the “Beers and Gears District” by Haynie – it already is home to a few craft beer breweries – the area was the subject of a study completed by Seamon Whiteside in October 2017. The study concluded that the town should target corporate headquarters and companies involved in logistics, IT, specialized business services, software development, and creative design.
At their annual retreat Jan. 31, Council members voiced their opinions about what the town’s economic development efforts should look like. Kathy Landing said she would like to see more restaurants in north Mount Pleasant, which would help with traffic issues, while Joe Bustos suggested that the town buy land in that area, which would take residential property off the market. Tom O’Rourke agreed, but for a different reason.
“We can sell it in 10 years and buy a whole lot of stuff,” he said.
Gary Santos, the only Council member who hasn’t retired or been retired by the voters since the 2015 elections – Bustos was a councilman from 2000 to 2009 – said the town should work with developers rather than buying land in North Mount Pleasant.
“We have a great airport. It would be nice for a company executive to fly into the airport and take a golf cart to his office,” he commented.
Regardless of which direction the town takes, adding a large number of housing units probably is not an option – at least under the current Council.
“That’s not the direction we’re going to go,” said Haynie. “Slow and steady is the wiser way to go.”