Coast RTA is turning to Coastal Carolina University to help the struggling bus service develop a business plan.
For years, Horry County Council members have asked for such a document. When they approved $1.05 million in funding for Coast this summer, they insisted that a business plan be created as part of the deal.
So Coast is teaming with the university’s Community and Business Engagement Institute, a new venture that pairs professors with elite students to tackle real world financial challenges for businesses and organizations.
“We have a lot of expertise,” said Nicholas Twigg, a Coast board member and an associate professor in the Wall College of Business. “We have people that can dedicate themselves to putting together an efficient and effective format [for the business plan].”
Twigg said he suggested Coastal partner with the bus service to take some of the pressure off of Coast’s staff, which is already grappling with other requirements of the funding agreement, including obtaining a forensic audit.
The bus service is also dealing with declining ridership and an aging bus fleet, not to mention the failed bus shelter program and other controversies that led to the firing of the agency’s CEO in April.
As for the business plan, the university’s primary task is taking some ideas and goals from Coast staff and incorporating them into the format for a plan. Twigg insisted that Coastal can’t write the plan; the university can only provide a template.
“No one can write a business plan for any company, for any business,” he said. “The business has to write it. They have to own it.”
Bus route changes?
The document Coastal is developing, which is expected to be finished in the coming weeks, will include details about Coast’s bus routes: Should they be expanded? Should some be cut? What’s the purpose behind each one?
In addition to the business plan, Twigg said he’s also developing a task force that will take an in-depth look at the routes. He’s hoping representatives from other local agencies that oversee many vehicles (Horry County Schools, the Horry County Solid Waste Authority) will serve on the task force, too.
“I would love to have that person sit and look at our routes,” he said. “Just a different set of eyes.”
Bernie Silverman, Coast’s board chairman, said he supports Twigg’s efforts.
“He has really taken this project on,” he said. “We need someone to do it.”
Silverman, who has been a Coast passenger since before he served on the board, said Twigg’s background gives him a unique insight into the agency’s needs.
“I know who we serve,” he said. “But when the county or someone says, ‘Well why do you have a route here and not there?’ My answer is, ‘We need it there.’ But his answer is, ‘Why do we need it there?’ or ‘Do we really need it there? Do we need it somewhere else?’”
Apart from the business plan and the task force, Silverman said Coast officials are moving forward with other requirements in their funding agreement with the county, including filing quarterly reports, accepting oversight from the county staff and moving forward with a forensic audit.
“With that funding agreement, there is going to be no latitude for us to say, ‘Well, we didn’t know what you want,’” Silverman said. “There may be latitude to say, ‘Well, we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t complete it.’ But it’s very clear what they want.”
Horry County Council will discuss Coast’s progress on those fronts during a budget workshop Friday.
Chairman Mark Lazarus said Coast seems to be addressing the county’s concerns.
“From what I’ve seen so far,” he said, adding that Coast recently expanded its board to include two more members appointed by county council.
Lazarus said the biggest test for Coast will be where the organization is in the spring. That’s when the council holds a two-day budget retreat to hash out a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Coast officials hope the spring meeting won’t require a tough sell. By meeting the council’s benchmarks, they’re trying to persuade local leaders to continue funding the agency. Silverman said he understands discussions about the bus service have caused headaches for council members in recent years. He said it’s also been tough on employees as well as those Coast exists to serve.
“I want to make that budget next year as easy as possible,” he said. “It’s just too hard on our passengers.”
Emerson Gore, 30, uses the bus to get from Conway, where he lives, to work at the beach. On Friday, he was climbing aboard the 10 a.m. bus en route to meet someone about a job at a grocery store.
Gore said he has a disabled friend who takes the bus, too, and he doesn’t know what he would do without Coast.
“It’s very important to my friend,” he said. “It’s really important that he ride the bus.”