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Rice aims to improve standing of Horry County

Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice is mad.

It's hard to tell because he's a quiet guy, but he's upset that the Grand Strand - the state's cash cow - doesn't see enough returns, and he wants to see new opportunities for jobs here.

"The state takes our money and spends it to incentivize Charleston, Lexington and Greenville," Rice said. "Is that right? The more I think about it, the angrier I get. Has the state ever incentivized us a dime? We're not even in the competition."

That's why economic development is on today's Committee of the Whole agenda, and will probably be on the table at the group's meeting every month. The topic today is the county's relationship with the Waccamaw Council of Governments, and the Workforce Investment Board.

Why isn't Horry County in the game?

That depends whom you ask.

"We do get inquiries [from companies considering locating here] - all the time," Rice said. But the county and the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation don't have incentives to offer interested businesses, and there's the lack of a major interstate, he said.

"We don't have a direct link to I-95, and the areas that do have access to a major interstate to move products and raw materials are always going to have an advantage," said Doug Wendel, chairman of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. "And we have been perceived by the powers that be in Columbia as very healthy, booming, fat cats who don't need help like other areas do."

Even without an interstate, the county has a lot to offer, Rice said, from its natural resources and charms to the airport and the adjacent new International Technology and Aerospace Park, just waiting to be occupied. New businesses opening here, such as the Pittsburgh Institute of Aviation, will help provide a highly trained workforce, too.

"Other counties are buying jobs," Rice said, pointing to the $5 million incentive package Lexington County offered to get an distribution center. "That's 1,300 to 1,500 new jobs. That means the county paid about $3,000 a job. Wouldn't we have paid that? But we're not even in the competition."

Rice said a big part of the problem is that in boom times, people haven't worried about economic development. And Horry County has seen some big booms.

"In some ways, we haven't had to get in the game. We don't have a strategy yet, but we are working on it," he said.

Wendel said his board, Rice and others are working to find a new leader for the economic development agency who has experience and will be able to communicate with Columbia and the North Eastern Strategic Alliance about Horry County's goals and needs, and get the whole community working together.

"In the past, we haven't done a good job of pulling together in one direction to set goals and focus on what we want to become," Wendel said.

Others agree, too, when he says Horry County also needs to do a better job of building and shoring up relationships with its legislative delegation.

Councilman Marion Foxworth, District 3, said although previous issues between the county and Myrtle Beach - over the terminal project at the airport, for example - have gotten the most press coverage, the truth is, the county and the cities work well together.

But the county hasn't always meshed with the legislative delegation.

Like many, Foxworth anticipates that when census numbers are released, Horry County will gain representatives at the state and federal levels, which will make the delegation that much more powerful.

But there's a fundamental relationship issue that needs to be resolved. From the perspective of some in the legislative delegation, it's because the county didn't try hard enough, and in some council members' views, it's the other way around.

Foxworth remembers a dinner the League of Cities scheduled a couple of years ago to which members of every Horry County municipality, the county and the school board showed up, but only one member of the legislative delegation attended.

But Rep. Liston Barfield remembers plenty of events in Columbia over his 21 years in office that were attended by only one or two Horry County Council members. For a long time, he said, District 7 Councilman James Frazier was the only council member to consistently show up.

Barfield said whatever the past problems were, it's not too late.

"We all represent the same group of people," Barfield said. "Horry County would be much better off if we could all come together and get to know each other better and understand the challenges we each face. It's time for us to make the time to get together."

He said Rice's urging recently that council members attend a legislative event in Columbia prompted nine of the 12 councilmen to show up. Barfield was impressed.

"Unfortunately I had another event that night, but they went to the first one and then came over to mine, too," he said.

"If it's one person's fault, it's everybody's fault," Wendel said. "But it's a new day. I'm excited about the direction we're heading."

Rice said a major motivator in his bid for the chairman's seat on the Horry County Council was that the county could do better.

"If you want to get things done, it's all about relationships," said Rice.

Rice's detractors, including those who've begun a "Rice-watch" Facebook page - which has few items about Rice posted on it - say he's just another cog in the Grand Strand's "good ole boy network."

He seems puzzled when asked about that perception.

He has lived here since he was 4, has been involved in community work like the Sertoma Club and Myrtle Beach Haven, serving as that board's president for 10 years, is an active church member, a golfer and a fisherman and, let's face it, one of the area's wealthier citizens.

That means he travels in social circles that include some of the area's biggest movers and shakers, including businessman and chairman of the Coastal Carolina University board of directors Billy Alford; the late David Brittain, whose family has been credited with helping build Myrtle Beach into one of the country's top vacation destinations; businessman Danny Isaac, vice chairman of the S.C. Department of Transportation; and many others.

"Am I a good ole boy because I know people and we work together to try and get things done for Horry County?" Rice said. "Should I destroy those relationships so people won't call me a good ole boy?"

He brushes off the pejorative and says his focus is on what's best for the county.

He continues to press for the planned Interstate 73/74, including a trip to Washington, D.C., this spring to meet with federal legislators, and to seek new ways to raise the average wage in Horry County.

"I go to events to speak, and people come to me and tell me they are leaving here because there are no jobs, and the ones we do have don't pay," Rice said. "I am so tired of hearing that. We've got to do better."