Small towns in South Carolina can't always play by the same economic development rules of larger cities. For one thing, tax incentives to lure giant industrial companies are not typically on the table.
"It's not always easy getting things done in small towns in America," said Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., and the board chairman of the National Main Street Center. McMahon was the keynote speaker at the Municipal Association's Annual Meeting this year.
"I guarantee you that no matter what you have proposed to do in your community, you have people who have told you, 'can't do it, won't work, costs too much, tried it already.' And 'no' is a terrible word in American small towns. But I want to tell you a more powerful word — 'Yes.' 'Yes, we can make our communities a better place to live in, to look at, to work in, to visit.'"
All cities and towns, but especially smaller municipalities, can make the most of their assets by finding what makes them different from other places. McMahon pointed to success stories about the creative reuse of flood walls, a closed bridge, historic grain elevators, a World War II torpedo factory and a riverfront that was in decline. Municipal officials reinvented them all and leveraged them to promote economic prosperity.
But small towns need the basics, too, including infrastructure, a trained workforce and cooperation with neighbors.
Four municipal leaders answered the question: What is your biggest challenge in attracting business?
Allison Harvey, administrator, Town of Clover
Convenient access to transportation alternatives are understandably top priorities for business and industry. Like many other rural communities in South Carolina that are not in close proximity to interstates, airports and rail, Clover can't offer that type of access, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage for attracting larger industry. We are also experiencing high demand for residential development on property that is located on prime commercial transportation corridors, which leaves our community in the challenging situation of finding the right balance for growth.
Mayor Terrence Culbreath, City of Johnston
I believe our challenges when attracting a big employer could be our size and location. We're a rural town located in one of the smaller counties. So most businesses look over us! But we have a lot to offer potential employers. Because in smaller communities comes hometown love and pride, and that makes for a strong local workforce. I see the potential challenges as opportunities for a forward-thinking company to partner and grow alongside Johnston.
Mayor Corrin Fitts Bowers, Town of Estill
Infrastructure — We are undertaking a $3.5 million project to upgrade our wastewater treatment plant. This will allow us to drastically improve our services so that we are prepared for any size industry that is willing to locate in Estill. As far as small businesses, the town needs adequate building space that is suitable for small businesses. This will attract residents and travelers to stop and patronize our area more.
A trained workforce — We need trained residents who can pass WorkKeys (a job skills assessment system). This will allow us to become more attractive to any business that our local economic developer may be trying to recruit to our area. Also, establishing strategic partnerships with our local school and the Technical College of the Lowcountry.
Education — Low test scores are a determining factor in turning off business because the owners want to have a stable workforce. To be effective, partnerships with the school district and other surrounding areas are essential.
Mayor Blake Sanders, Town of West Pelzer
It's difficult as the mayor of a small municipality to put a finger on one single item as our biggest challenge; however, as a small town positioned between Anderson and Greenville, we assume the position as an underdog for new business opportunities and employment centers. West Pelzer should recognize that Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts and Greenville Mayor Knox White are very helpful with neighboring towns, and a further partnership could be developed to ensure that we are working cohesively.
Just as I can almost hear the sound of the water at Falls Park or the roar of Memorial Stadium, I'm sure that adjacent neighbors to us can hear the excitement and sounds of the Mill Town Players.
We were awarded a Hometown Economic Development Grant in 2016, which gave us (in partnership with the Town of Pelzer) the opportunity to get a head start on economic development and business opportunities. I utilized the master plan and market study (made possible by the grant) to attract one new retail store (Westy's Antiques and Vintage Heirlooms), two restaurants (Scoops Ice Cream and 26 Main Pizzeria), with many more promising opportunities!