Despite the fact that Beaufort County currently celebrates the fifth highest per capita concentration of millionaires in the U.S. and the highest per capita concentration of college graduates of South Carolina’s 46 counties, more than half our students are eligible for free or assisted lunches.
This doesn’t make sense. We need leadership and commitment to turn this around. Can we disappoint future generations when we know we can do better? Not on my watch!
Since I was a child, growing up in Beaufort, I’ve heard “grownups” give lip service to economic diversification. We heard frequent warnings that we should not be overly reliant on farming and shrimping (now almost extinct), tourism, the military, government jobs and more recently the construction trades.
Those who grow up here, and find career opportunities elsewhere, leave hoping to one day be able to afford to retire here. And those who don’t have these opportunities, stay and struggle without hope of giving their children more opportunity than they had. A huge demographic imbalance … and we all pay the price.
We expect our school teachers to give hope to students who see little reason to study because they don’t believe that staying in school is going to lead to a better future.
On a positive note — together, the people of Beaufort County have scaled many mountains. We’ve brought potable drinking water, indoor plumbing, comprehensive healthcare and other services to rural areas that did not have them. We’ve more than doubled our population by becoming a desirable retirement destination. We’ve invested hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars on bridges and road improvements to ensure safe evacuation and to avoid gridlock. We’ve provided urban level fire and emergency services to outlying areas. We’ve built libraries and schools and recreation centers to accommodate growth. And, we’ve invested millions of dollars to preserve open space, to protect our natural beauty and to steer growth.
Who says we cannot do what we “choose” to do?
It‘s time to raise the level of commitment so we can fulfill long- awaited promises for a diverse economic base and more economic sustainability.
Heated discussions about the financial failure of the Beaufort Commerce Park, and whether the Lowcountry Economic Network has done what was expected, as well as the benefits of regional versus local economic development were quieted by handing the challenge to consultants. The Lowcountry Economic Alliance committed $125,000 for a study and soon after Beaufort County committed $50,000 for its own study. Yet, I haven’t seen one editorial or news report asking: Aren’t people talking with each other? Aren’t we wasting public resources though duplication? Are we paying attention? Are we content to see a system failing?
And, regardless of what consultants tell us, if we don’t have the commitment to make change, our money is wasted.
So, I ask … when will someone have the courage to say the emperor wears no clothes? That leadership is avoiding hard decisions, tough choices and investing little if anything toward this long-standing challenge?
Some wax eloquent that we have too much government in our lives; that the challenge is for the private sector. Well, where were they when we voted to raise taxes to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for more bridges and roads to accommodate the retirement boom that brought them here?
Economic development, however, requires partnerships between willing governments that embrace the private sector while also establishing predictable and timely regulatory processes.
Regrettably, our county is perceived by economic developers as unfriendly to business. Perhaps this is because our regulatory processes are punitive rather than incentive-based and we have yet to encourage bureaucrats to collaborate. (I don’t mean a laissez fair approach where total control is yielded to few at the expense of many. I mean a collaboration to do what is right for ALL.)
I am, however, saying it shouldn’t take longer than 30 days to issue a development permit for a simple industrial building in an established business park. And, we shouldn’t cause delays for businesses locating to a business park because they didn’t select appropriately colored awnings or their landscaping wasn’t completely installed.
In good conscience, I can’t wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting so I am calling on you, my colleagues across the region, to bite the bullet, work together, dig deeper into our pockets if necessary and engage the private sector to walk the walk.
We must fulfill our outstanding promise. If we don’t, who will?
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.