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Greenville Business Magazine

Just Right for S.C.: Gains in Rural, Smaller Communities

By David Dykes

Smaller counties, towns and rural areas often get lost in headlines that celebrate urban achievements of job additions and corporate expansions.

The importance of those areas should never be taken for granted, however. And several recent developments show they aren’t.

Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin earlier this year visited parts of northeastern South Carolina to see how the region has been faring.

He connected with community and workforce leaders to gain insight on the local economy and challenges made worse by the health crisis.

During his socially distant and virtual meetings in Myrtle Beach and several cities in Dillon and Florence counties, including Florence and Timmonsville, Barkin learned about issues unique to each locality and discovered that while some industries are thriving despite the pandemic, it has produced another set of challenges.

The two-day February visit was part of a year-round effort called Community Conversations, through which the Richmond Fed’s regional executives, community development regional managers and Barkin spend time in a particular region meeting with small groups of stakeholders to learn more about the well-being of those towns and cities.

Barkin’s visit included several one-on-one meetings, along with tours of Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc. and Inland Port Dillon.

He also participated in several virtual meetings, including a workforce development roundtable hosted by the Florence-based Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology and the Florence-Darlington Technical College; a Zoom meeting with the North Eastern Strategic Alliance board of directors; and a roundtable with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

While learning about the growing business of a Honda plant that produces ATVs and other off-road vehicles, Barkin and his team discovered a lack of trained workers has prevented the plant from keeping up with demand.

They said several other thriving manufacturing businesses are facing a similar issue and seeking ways to reposition a labor force that isn’t skilled for the available jobs.

In addition, they said there isn’t a steady stream of workforce and economic development funding for certain training programs.

“If you have workers in an industry that need to transition to a different industry, what supports do they have to do that retraining?” asked Matthew Martin, the Richmond Fed’s regional executive for North Carolina and South Carolina who helped plan Barkin’s visit along with colleagues in the bank’s research and community development divisions. “With demand up 30 percent, the Honda plant is running out of inventory.”

Another example is CDL training for truck drivers, Martin said. “They only have one person who is certified to do the testing, so there is a constraint in getting the drivers through this program,” he said.

One key challenge is the mismatch in jobs. While there have been large employment losses in the hospitality and leisure industries, there are jobs available in manufacturing or distribution, Martin said.

“There’s a labor-matching problem that’s really difficult right now,” he said. “Obviously, as the economy improves, that’s only got to get more difficult.”

Richmond Fed officials also said they found industries in the region hit hard by the pandemic are straining to stay staffed.

The officials said Myrtle Beach hotels and restaurants have seen a 40 percent decline in business. Yet employers said it has been challenging to lure back employees who have been receiving unemployment benefits and when issues such as a lack of childcare and a fear of getting Covid-19 still exist.

Still, state officials, working earnestly to provide opportunities for South Carolinians in all corners of the state, remain bullish.

South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt recently noted that with 14 percent percent of South Carolinians living in rural areas, the Palmetto State’s smaller communities are an integral part of our overall economy.

And there, Hitt said in a February Commerce communication, we’ve made great strides.

Last year, as the world navigated the Covid-19 pandemic, capital investment in South Carolina’s rural communities nearly doubled from 2019, topping more than $1.1 billion in 2020, Hitt said.

He cited, as one example of a major economic win, the announcement of the Agriculture Technology Campus in Hampton County last September. The $314 million project will create 1,500 jobs over the next five years.

Other sizable rural announcements in 2020 included Huber Engineered Woods LLC in Dillon County, Pure Blue Fish in Orangeburg County and Oldcastle APG in Fairfield County.

To ensure resilient communities, Team S.C. continues to recruit industries of all types to the state’s rural areas, Hitt said.

“And, we recognize that rural economic development should focus on the unique strengths of each region,” he wrote. “However, one component is critical to quality of life throughout the state: access to high-speed internet. More than ever, when online connectivity is essential to education, business and economic competitiveness, it is imperative that rural South Carolina has access to reliable broadband networks.”

In 2019, S.C. Commerce was allocated $65 million by the General Assembly to help facilitate economic development and infrastructure improvements in 14 eligible counties. 

Recognizing the increasing importance of internet access, up to $30 million of the total funding was  

to be allocated to the Office of Regulatory Staff for the continuance of the program to provide competitive grants to broadband providers to advance broadband deployment in those specified counties, Hitt said.

The remainder of the funding, $35 million, is designated to provide grants to eligible counties to enhance economic development competitiveness.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it is funding 86 projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program, including four in South Carolina.

The program helps rural education and health care entities remotely reach students, patients and outside expertise. USDA officials said the capabilities make world-class education and health care opportunities accessible in rural communities.

In South Carolina:

The School District of Pickens County is receiving a $845,291 grant. It will be used to establish distance learning systems and digital resources in seven rural communities in Pickens County. The system will deliver community support, dual-credit and foreign language courses; virtual field trips; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses; and professional development opportunities. It also will expand personalized learning for nearly 19,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Clinton College will use a $499,950 grant to establish a distance learning system to connect with libraries, churches and adult learning centers for residents in 12 counties in rural South Carolina. Funding will provide workforce-focused certificates and college degree programs to adult learners. In addition, North Carolina Central University School of Law will provide pre-law courses and free virtual legal clinics, which provide interactive training on civil and criminal law.

The McLeod Regional Med Center of the Pee Dee will use a $697,674 grant to provide telehealth services to rural communities in Clarendon, Chesterfield, Marlboro and Lower Florence counties. Telehealth platforms will be installed at several public schools in the area to help students receive primary care visits and medication prescriptions. In addition, a platform will be placed in primary care offices in Manning and Cheraw to enable pulmonologists to perform remote visits on patients with lung ailments, helping them receive high-quality care from home.

The Williamsburg County School District will use a $792,441 grant to establish a distance learning system to make dual enrollments available to students at colleges and universities in Williamsburg County. It will also expand Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives for 3,700 students and provide training for teachers in Greeleyville, Hemingway, Lane, Kingstree, Salters and Stuckey.

Many of the topics critical to rural growth were discussed at the 31st annual South Carolina Rural Summit.

Taking place March 1-2, the event welcomed local officials and economic development allies from across the state, featured a lineup of speakers and took an in-depth look at subjects including broadband expansion, childcare, and rural resiliency.

This year, S.C. Commerce partnered with SCETV to host the event virtually.

The S.C. Rural Summit was a good opportunity for local leaders to develop strategic growth plans for their individual areas.

And through that collaboration and discussion, Hitt said we’ll be able to maximize the potential of rural South Carolina, ensuring a competitive future all across our state.

David Dykes is editor of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine.