Economic development group makes new push to reach Myrtle Beach area elected officials

In the face of continued uncertainty in some circles about the success of its job creation efforts, the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. is reaching out to elected officials to both improve communication and defend its record.

The agency’s renewed efforts come as it plans to increase its operating budget this year and Horry County Council members are ranging from fully supportive to cautious when it comes to maintaining the county’s current funding level.

Business recruiters want to continue to educate officials about confidentiality matters, the importance of incentives and aspects of the site selection process when it comes to luring businesses to the Grand Strand, said Brad Lofton, president and CEO of the EDC.

EDC officials, therefore, will hold a retreat Thursday with Horry County Council members and area municipalities’ mayors to talk about economic development and to give them an update on where the EDC stands on bringing jobs to Horry County. The agency’s meeting comes a day before the Horry County Council fall budget retreat, where council members are scheduled to talk about the funding level for the EDC.

“We’ve learned a lot in two years on how the county likes to structure deals and performance agreements,” Lofton said. “We want to know what we could do better, what they would like to see us do differently and talk about the role of elected officials.”

Some County Council members say they are pleased with what the job creation agency has done so far while some others are waiting to see what happens with prospective companies, including Project Blue, which could bring more than 1,000 jobs to a new call center.

“The results and potential have satisfied me,” said Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus, who serves on the EDC board. “We’re heading in the right direction. Can we do more? Yes. Is it better than before? Yes.”

County Councilman Brent Schulz, who served on the EDC board in the past, also said he is happy with the EDC’s efforts. Other council members are a little more cautious.

“My mind is still open as we prepare to move forward,” County Councilman Marion Foxworth said. He said as the council looks at the county’s budget next year, it will have to determine whether it is willing to continue to fund the EDC if the council has to make cuts in the budget.

Last year, the county approved giving the EDC an influx of cash in an effort to bring more jobs and business investments to the area.

Starting last year, the corporation is slated to receive $1.8 million a year for five years from Horry County, an increase from about $300,000 a year that the EDC had been getting. About $1.3 million of that money goes to non-operating expenses such as incentives for drawing new businesses, and the remaining $500,000 goes toward the EDC operating budget.

“I was always leery about appropriating $1.8 million a year to economic development, but I’m willing to give them an opportunity to work through some organizational issues they had and give them a chance,” County Councilman Harold Worley said.

Out of EDC’s $2.1 million budget last fiscal year, the corporation spent nearly $1.1 million, including $200,000 for payments to another economic development group, the North Eastern Strategic Alliance; $62,040 for consulting services for a product development plan; $406,724 for personnel; $44,681 for marketing; and $63,046 for recruitment, according to EDC financial statements.

“We were under budget last year,” said Lofton, who said the additional revenue comes from mainly private and some municipalities’ membership funds. “We’re trying to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money.”

Although the EDC spent less money than it budgeted for last year, its budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1, has increased to more than $2.3 million.

Lofton said that is because of additional staff needed, which is paid for with public funding, and because of an increase in private funds for trade shows and some marketing.

The budget increased $20,000 for trade shows, business development travel, and a quarterly Developers’ Day, which is an effort to get specialized site selection consultants to the county.

EDC budgeted $485,250 for personnel, which includes the addition of an executive assistant to help with answering the phones and administrative duties. That position has not been filled yet, Lofton said. He said they are making do with three interns from Coastal Carolina University.

The largest expenditure in the first three months of this budget year, July through September, was for personnel – which includes salaries, health insurance and retirement contributions – and amounted to $87,559.79, according to EDC financial statements.

The EDC filled two positions after its director of recruitment and director of marketing and existing industry left this year for other job opportunities.

Brandon Sessions replaced Kelly Stuart, who was the EDC’s director of recruitment, as its director of development. And Candace Howell has replaced Kate MacArthur, who was the EDC’s director of marketing and existing industry, as its director of marketing and membership.

Lofton said the EDC is proud of both Stuart and MacArthur’s service, but would not offer details of why they left about a year after they both started.

Foxworth said he had some concerns about the staff turnover at the EDC, but under the way the corporation is created, the council has no say in that.

“There are no concerns from my perspective,” Worley said. “I’m depending on Brad Lofton to lead that organization and get the job done.”

Lofton said the EDC has come far in generating prospects and jobs. To date, the EDC has announced about 400 jobs toward its goal of bringing 500 jobs to the area during Lofton’s first 18 months on the job. Lofton started his position in April 2011.

Horry County’s agreement with EDC calls for the corporation to create at least 500 jobs from new company relocations or existing industry expansions in Horry County by June 30 or risk losing county funding.

By the spring, the council should have enough information to see where the EDC stands on jobs creation, Worley said.

“I think the jury is still out on EDC’s performance,” Worley said. “I just have to wait to see how projects shake out once contracts are signed. I think there’s a place for economic development incentives. We need good, high-paying jobs in the county.”