As Horry County ponders who to put into the role of County Council chairman, two major, ongoing issues come to the fore.
The first is no surprise. It’s the same concern we’ve had for the past few years: How can we improve our local economy and get more people back to work? While local jobless numbers are showing some welcome improvement, our recovery from the crash of a few years ago remains painstakingly slow. More than 11 percent of Horry County workers were without jobs in December, the latest numbers available from the state Department of Employment and Workforce. Job seekers in our region outnumbered job openings 5 to 1.
And it’s not just that we need more jobs. We also desperately need better paying jobs that provide better opportunities for our residents. The Myrtle Beach metro area continues to lag near or at the bottom when it comes to average hourly wages and annual income. Nearly a quarter of the county’s children are living under the poverty line. A fifth of the county is receiving food aid. And an amazing 25 to 30 percent of Horry County is functionally illiterate, reading at or below a fifth-grade level.
It’s always been true that there’s only so much government can do to remedy these issues. Incentives and “business-friendly” policies will only go so far toward bringing in new jobs and helping current employers. Recovery will only truly pick up steam when private industry feels secure and ready to expand. But there certainly are policies and ideas that government can implement to make it easier for businesses to bounce back and hire once again, which is where we look to our politicans for leadership.
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Our area’s second major issue is inextricably tied to the first: Growth.
The Census Bureau estimates the county has added 80,000 residents since 2000. Our population has almost doubled in the past 20 years, growing by 130,000 residents. That’s meant building new schools, paving new roads, laying new sewer lines, expanding hospitals, constructing new libraries, dedicating new parks and weighing the merits of new developments and applications for construction.
But that explosive growth slowed somewhat after the housing bubble burst; we have slightly different leadership needs today than we did a few years ago. Not so long ago, we required leaders able to make smart decisions about where to pull back on the reins, to regulate and police growth that was often happening faster than the county could keep up. Today, we need leaders able to jump-start that growth once more.
Meanwhile, the next chairman will be dealing with a countywide property reassessment that could play havoc with the county budget. He or she will also be in office when the second RIDE effort to pay for local roads comes to an end, likely later this year. Whether to initiate a third effort, what that might look like and how to structure it will soon become major questions.
So who among the five candidates for chairman has the qualities necessary to both nurture our recovering economy and make smart decisions about our growth? We believe the baton should fall to businessman and former Councilman Mark Lazarus.
Lazarus has decades of local business experience, growing ventures from the ground up. He also offers plenty of local political experience, with prior service on the County Council as well as other local boards. His involvement in the community – we hear every year from folks grateful for the foster care day hosted by his water park – and his good relationship with current leaders throughout the area, also recommend him for this seat.
Some have attempted to paint Lazarus’ extensive connections with local, regional and state leaders as a weakness, evidence that he is merely a tool of the old -oy network. But we don’t buy into the notion that simply having good working relationships with powerful people automatically leads to shadowy back-room deals. Instead, Lazarus’ ability to quickly and easily integrate himself into regional groups such as the North Eastern Strategic Alliance, Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, Coastal Alliance and more is a definite advantage.
With this term lasting only 18 months, we need a leader able to make a difference from day one. (And on the flip side, voters have the advantage of replacing that leader in just a year and a half if it turns out the wrong person got the job.) Lazarus is the leader best positioned to hit the ground running, and with numerous business successes under his belt, he knows personally what other businesses need – and what they don’t – in order to succeed.
As for the other candidates, Councilman Al Allen and former Chairwoman Liz Gilland also ran strong campaigns. We appreciated, for instance, Gilland’s focus not just on attracting new businesses but also encouraging and growing our existing employers. And Allen undoubtedly has the strongest connection with and understanding of the concerns of more rural and agricultural western Horry County. We would not be concerned or sorry if either are elected and think both could do a fine job in the chairman’s seat.
We imagine the race will likely come down to one of these three – Lazarus, Gilland and Allen. All have their own advantages and good ideas. In fact, whoever wins, we would encourage him or her to sit down with the other two and talk about shared goals and ideas.
We had more concerns about local consultant Debbie Harwell, who has a strong background in transportation, but is a bit unrealistic in some of her expectations and promises when it comes to the position. Convenience store owner Fonzie Lewis, a perennial candidate, has always struck us as a nice guy who genuinely wants to help his community, but his lack of experience in local politics is a concern, given the steep learning curve he would have as chairman.
In the balance, Lazarus simply outshone his competitors and he’s our choice for Horry County Council chairman.