The newly established Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation gets off to a good start
By Dustin Waters
As more and more eyes turn to Beaufort County, balancing the scale between industry and conservation is the top priority.
While experiencing a fair amount of interest in light manufacturing and aerospace-related companies, Beaufort County’s hospitality and tourism industries rely on preserving the area’s pristine natural surroundings to maintain a regional economic impact of $1.5 billion while welcoming more than 3 million visitors each year. That’s why the area has become a state leader in recycling and has in turn started to attract a variety of startups and other businesses focused on the environment.
While coastal tourism is a strong economic driver for the area, Beaufort also benefits from being situated between Savannah and Boeing’s North Charleston operations. This means companies in the aerospace supply chain looking to service manufacturers in both neighboring metropolitan areas look to Beaufort County as a nice spot to locate.
According to John O’Toole, executive director of the newly established Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation, the county brought in around $40 million in new capital investments over the last nine months and are on track to reach their goal of $50 million by June.
“The projects that we are attracting in Beaufort are small to midsize companies that slot into Beaufort creating great employment opportunities, expanding and diversifying the tax base, but don’t dramatically change the landscape of what we all love in Beaufort County,” O’Tools says.
In the development corporation’s first full year of operation, they have welcomed the creation of 313 new local jobs created in the area—far surpassing their initial goal of 200. Part of their strategy has been leveraging the work done by the local destination marketing organizations to help spread the word about Beaufort.
“We have a lot of attention right now,” says O’Toole. “South Carolina obviously has been a really hot economy. Beaufort has been a little slow in getting in the game, but I would say with all of our towns’ and county’s backing, we’re getting our message out.”
One goal, according to O’Toole, is working closely with the area’s underserved populations—particularly the Gullah community, African-American community, and the Hispanic community—to make sure everyone enjoys a good quality of life. The bulk of the attention that Beaufort County is receiving from employers is largely attributed to one local group—veterans.
With 1,000 to 1,200 exiting military members in Beaufort County annually, many of whom choose to stay, investors are taking notice.
“Employers are looking at Beaufort County with a keener eye because of our exiting military. It’s not just the exiting military, but it’s the fact that we team up with the Technical College of the Lowcountry and USC Beaufort to track the military and their dependents in their programs,” O’Toole explains. “Within their programs, they have a 92 percent retention rate—keeping those folks that they train and educate in-county. Out of roughly 850 folks in their programs, we’re able to demonstrate to employers that we are retaining a fair amount of military and their dependents in Beaufort County. We call it our ace in the hole. It’s the hand you put on the table that will help you win.”
In the last nine months, Lockheed Martin began the process of hiring 78 new employees in Beaufort County, bringing the count to more than 200 employed at their facility on the local Marine Corps Air Station. Meanwhile, the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation is working with Samet Corp. to develop a 50,000 square-foot spec building located in Beaufort’s Commerce Park that will break ground later this year.
In this push to establish more “product” for businesses looking to buy into Beaufort County, local economic developers are also working with partners at the Southern Carolina Alliance to identify larger tracts of land that they can develop in partnership with neighboring counties.
When it comes to picturing his priorities for Beaufort County, O’Toole envisions a wheel with the environment at the top spoke, followed by education, economic development, workforce, and transportation. It’s a system that requires a good deal of patience and an age-old foresight.
“When Iroquois elders would make decisions, they’d make decisions looking seven generations ahead. I believe that’s the kind of mindfulness we need to have in Beaufort,” says O’Toole. “With that said, and working with our folks in the environmental community, trying to find product is really our largest obstacle. We must work with the community in advance of projects so that there is great awareness about what we are bringing in and we build a reputation for Beaufort of being a simple, swift, and certain place to develop your business.”