Skepticism of potential call center in Myrtle Beach growing

sjones@thesunnews.comDecember 15, 2012 

— Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice said Friday that he thinks it may be time for the county to forget about trying to woo a call center to Carolina Forest and move on to something else.

“I just can’t see it coming together,” Rice said.

The Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. plans to update council members Tuesday on the progress of talks with the telecommunications company Covation, but they were tight-lipped Thursday about what will be said.

Candace Howell, marketing manager for the EDC, said the EDC planned to update council members Tuesday, but the item was not listed on the council’s agenda. The council could add the discussion to the agenda at the start of the meeting.

Howell said that the effort is still an active project and that the company is still in negotiations for the contract that would put it in business in Horry County. She said work is ongoing on some sections of the effort and that the EDC will send it back to County Council once that work is completed.

“It’s very difficult to put a date on when,” she said of the proposal’s return to county government.

But Rice said the county gave the company until Nov. 15 to finalize details on its development package.

“I have not heard that Covation has made any progress,” he said.

Rice said he was not at a Friday morning meeting of the EDC board because of out-of-state congressional meetings. Rice was elected as the new 7th Congressional District’s first representative in November.

He said that despite not being at the meeting, he thinks he would have heard if significant progress had been made.

He said County Council told Covation it would not take up the issue again until it made progress on things the county wants done.

The council had agreed to put up $1.8 million of county funds to help Covation locate at an as yet unbuilt facility in Carolina Forest. Additionally, the state was in line to help with the incentives as was Horry Georgetown Technical College, which had agreed to give the company space to train employees.

Further, the council had taken two votes to borrow $8 million in general obligation bonds for the effort, but tabled the final vote at the request of Covation. Howell said at the time that Covation wanted to have a signed contract with AT&T before the bond sale was finalized.

Rice is not the only council member who is skeptical about the effort at this point.

Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf said he wants Covation to put a healthy scoop of its own funds into the deal as well.

“My guess is that they haven’t put in as much money as they probably should have,” Schwartzkopf said of Covation.

Schwartzkopf said he is wary of business prospects who want to use “other people’s money” for their development. He said he’s tired of prospects looking to Horry County for their “OPM.”

“If you don’t have any skin in the game, you probably don’t care (about the outcome),” he said.

Councilman Marion Foxworth agreed with Schwartzkopf that Covation needs to have more of its own money in the effort.

He said he’d like to hear EDC officials tell council members Tuesday that Covation will bring 1,000 jobs to Horry County, “and they’re going to reduce their (incentive) request by 75 percent.”

Foxworth said incentives to lure new businesses that will create new jobs isn’t unusual.

“What made this one unusual,” he said, “was the size.”

Rice said he’s aware that Covation had gone through a similar process in Hickory, N.C., several years ago that was put on delay and never resurfaced. The company also canceled plans to build a call center in Rome, Ga., according to an online report of the website Construction Journal.

But Rice said that Covation has eight or nine call centers around the U.S. The Atlanta-based company’s website does not list where they have call centers.

A call to the company’s telephone number listed online was not returned.

The questions about the company and its management may now be moot, though, as a growing number of council members seem ready to move on, as Rice put it.

“I won’t be surprised if the deal doesn’t pan out in the end,” Foxworth said.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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