Horry County leaders happy to see Project Blue go away

Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus said the council’s action Tuesday night simply put to bed something that had been dead for quite a while in Covation, which previously had been called Project Blue in council meetings.

“When they missed that November deadline, forget it,” Loftus said.

Covation was to have finalized some details by Nov. 15 on a call center it planned to build in Carolina Forest, and County Council members said missing that deadline was the last straw in a hunt for industry that at least some seriously questioned anyway.

The multi-million dollar incentive package the county was offering to Covation for 1,020 call center jobs was not to the council’s liking, as well, and the fact that some of it would put the county in debt only added to the worries.

“It was just too risky for my money and it was too risky for the taxpayers,” Councilman Harold Worley said Wednesday.

Worley said he was not comfortable that taxpayers would have put up all the capital for Covation and have no say in what ultimately happened with the project.

Brad Lofton, president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., delivered news of the project’s demise at Tuesday’s County Council meeting. On Wednesday, he said that losing potential projects is a fact of life in the economic development business.

“When you have 23 active projects, you win some, you lose some,” he said.

He said EDC officials and others spent four months working to close the deal, but its loss doesn’t leave the county bereft of job-bearing suitors.

Lofton said Horry County is competing with other locations for projects that would bring 500 to 700 jobs with them. None require an interstate highway, he said, but the rejuvenation of the Horry County railroad would be important to some.

Lofton and Doug Wendel, EDC board chairman, plan to seek the Council’s backing on a $60,000 contingency fund that could cover some legal expenses incurred in resolving issues that are keeping the railroad off its tracks.

Wendel heads up a group of officials from Horry, Marion and Columbus, N.C., counties that is hoping to get the train moving again, a goal Lofton said he hopes can be accomplished in four to five months.

EDC officials also hope to finalize the details early next month that will assist a local manufacturing company to expand by 56 jobs next year, Lofton said.

The presence of good news no doubt softens the weight of disappointment over Covation, and at least some council members seem relieved that it’s over.

“It was nice to have some finality,” Councilman Marion Foxworth said.

For Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf, Covation’s inability to meet its deadline was reason enough to cease working on the project.

“They didn’t do it, so they didn’t get it,” he said, while calling the EDC’s decision “brilliant, knowledgeable and intelligent.”

Lofton said the EDC recruitment effort cost less than $10,000 for initial trips he made to talk with the company as well as trips Covation officials made to Horry County.

He said all of the money came from the EDC’s private funding. The economic development group is not allowed to spend public funds on prospects or marketing.

The effort wasn’t totally without reward, Lofton said.

It was different from other EDC recruiting efforts in that it had so many parties working on it together. Besides the county and EDC, the push also included Santee Cooper, HTC, Horry Georgetown Technical College and the state Department of Commerce, all of which had promised some kind of incentives to lure Covation.

Lofton said the EDC learned how large a team it can assemble for such efforts, and he’s sure that, if necessary, all the partners would work together again.