Economic development is a team sport

It could be said that economic development is both an art and a science. The process involves a wide variety of both technical and soft skills and includes professionals trained in the field, elected officials, community advocates and business leaders.

Cities and towns that are successful in bringing economic growth to their community reach this goal not by the luck of the draw but rather through a strategic and collaborative vision. "All the players in the city and the surrounding community should understand their roles and all play to each other's strengths," said Jeff Ruble, president of the SC Economic Developers Association.

Ruble notes that every city must work to find its own perfect combination of assets, partners and plans, "No two processes are alike but all cities and towns can learn from each other about collaborative approaches that play to an area's unique assets."

For example, Hartsville is home to many assets including Sonoco Products Company operating around the globe but still headquartered in its hometown of Hartsville. The city is also home to the four-year Coker College and one of two SC Governor's Schools. The city has natural beauty including Lake Prestwood and the unique bluffs and cypress swamps of Kalmia Gardens.

City leaders point out that Hartsville is "the little town with a big heart" with lifelong residents and just-as-enthusiastic newcomers investing their time, capital and industry to diversify the local economy and build a better quality of life.

Hartsville Mayor Mel Pennington noted it's more than just the mayor's office or city council that build and implement the city's strategy. City leaders in Hartsville have recognized the need for a collaborative strategy that will sell the city's unique assets to potential businesses and keep existing businesses in the city.
Pennington said that within the City of Hartsville, "We have a tremendous vision of what we want to be without limitations.  Our team challenges each other daily to solve problems, think outside of the box and our comfort level, and create investment opportunities for a higher quality of life for those who call us home."

The team Pennington references includes council, city staff and local leadership from the business, education and nonprofit communities.

As city manager, Natalie Zeigler agreed this team approach is key to successful economic development, especially in a small community. "Drawing in investors and entrepreneurs requires that every key player in a community work together: elected officials, existing business, investors, schools and organizations," she said.

She sees her role as city manager as being part of the sales team for the community, capitalizing on every resource and building connections with all those who share the city's vision and passion for future development.

Zeigler noted the city's Economic Development Incentive Program has been a huge milestone for Hartsville. "I would recommend this type of policy formation to all of my colleagues, as this allows for a transparent methodology, a necessary protection for municipalities, and serves as an invaluable business recruitment tool in making locations in our downtown and major corridors more attractive for business development."

One of downtown's major economic partners in Hartsville is Coker College. Having a small college in a community like Hartsville brings an energy to everything, according to Coker President Dr. Robert Wyatt.

"Colleges bring new ideas, certainly, and they bring consumers and patrons and entrepreneurs," Wyatt said. "But colleges also bring intangibles like enthusiasm and optimism, which are urgently needed and, too often, hard to come by in communities that are not lucky enough to have a vibrant, residential college."

Wyatt and many of the college's faculty and staff are active partners in encouraging the city's economic growth. He has served as chair of the local chamber and is involved in a variety of educational and civic activities throughout the community.

The Hartsville Chamber of Commerce's president, Aimee Cox-King, agreed that it's only through partnerships that a city's economic development strategy can be successful.

Cox-King noted that the chamber's role in economic development may often extend beyond the traditional. "We have helped establish the Community Foundation for a Better Hartsville that has coordinated the development of an inner-city neighborhood to reduce crime and improve the quality of life for the residents by installing sidewalks and street lights," she said. "Through this partnership with the community foundation and the Main Street South Carolina program, an increase in public-private investments has brought two new hotels and filled many empty downtown storefronts."

Cox-King stressed that communication is key. "We meet regularly with city officials and attend city council meetings," she said. "Serving as ex officio members on boards that support economic development allows the chamber to remain connected, provide input, and share information and resources toward common goals."

A key element in a city's economic development strategy is understanding the types of businesses that would fit the unique assets of the community and going after those companies.

While Hartsville has a strong downtown and an active Main Street SC program, most industrial or manufacturing companies likely would not be interested in locating in downtown or even within its city limits because of space constraints, said Frank Willis, executive director of the Darlington County Economic Development Partnership and former mayor of Florence.

"But that doesn't mean the city doesn't play an active part in recruiting major industry to the area," he said.

Businesses looking to locate in a 30,000 square foot industrial space often won't find what they are looking for within a city limits, Willis observed. But, he said, the city has a vital role in making sure that it provides the amenities people want.

Willis said "A city provides quality of life attributes—the entertainment center, retail center, cultural center, spiritual center, educational center. Everything in terms of the amenities business owners want for their employees is usually driven by a town or city."

Ben Chastain, executive director of the Duke Energy Center for Innovation in Hartsville, agreed that quality of life is a key element cities provide when recruiting and retaining companies. During a panel discussion about entrepreneurialism at the Municipal Association's Annual Meeting in July, Chastain noted, "Look at the quality of life in your community. The type of people you want to attract will want a good restaurant selection and nice hotels."

Duke Energy Center for Innovation 
Local, state and business leaders cut the ribbon on
Hartville's business incubator, the Duke Energy Center for Innovation.

The Center is another economic development partner in Hartsville working to increase its entrepreneurial base through a collaborative effort among a number of community organizations. Duke Energy partnered with the Community Foundation for a Better Hartsville, the City of Hartsville, the Byerly Foundation, Clemson University and other organizations to establish the Center in downtown Hartsville.

Chastain pointed to these partnerships as key to making this incubator a success. In its first year, the Center graduated its first company, a new technology-based employer, FME Nuclear Solutions in downtown Hartsville.

Hartsville's thriving downtown is another asset that draws businesses to the city with the support of Main Street Hartsville. For example, Main Street Hartsville offers a grant program to help downtown businesses replace exterior signage and repaint building exteriors.

The Main Street Hartsville program was recently brought under the umbrella of the city, says Zeigler. "That gives it much more support and visibility as a resource for downtown businesses."

But focusing just on downtown or commercial corridors of a city isn't all that economic development is about, Pennington stressed. He said economic development also means not constraining the idea of teamwork and partnerships to landing businesses just within the city's corporate limits.

"We quickly find that even those not living in our municipal boundaries consider themselves as a part of the city. There has always existed an expectation that we represent people without the limitation of boundaries," said Pennington. "It makes you realize that your city has a greater impact and influence on the counties we reside in." 

Willis agreed with the premise that economic development in cities must reach beyond city limits. He stressed, "The city is my ally when I bring a client to town and want to show what our greater community looks like. I take them to Hartsville and show them what's available—schools, parks, local colleges. These quality of life amenities are typically driven by the town or community. That's a big role for the city to play."