S.C. commerce secretary talks state economic growth; opportunities for rural communities

May 16, 2017

EDGEFIELD — South Carolina has been on a mission to change itself for several years, the state’s commerce secretary said Tuesday, and its economic growth is a welcomed transformation the department wants to see in all regions.

Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said he believes the change began with the automotive industry.

“The business in changing South Carolina, in my opinion, started with BMW,” Hitt said at an industry luncheon Tuesday in Edgefield. “We were just spiraling down from the loss of textiles in the state. We were what I referred to 25 years ago as the ‘three T’ state. We were textiles. We were tobacco, and we were tourism.”

Thousands of textile jobs were lost during the textile industry’s downturn, devastating families and communities in the state.

Today, the state has 66,000 automotive jobs, said Hitt.

South Carolina also is home to other key industries such as aerospace, and the Department of Commerce continues its focus on tourism. Tourism makes up $20 billion of the state’s overall gross domestic product or GDP; automotive is about $30 billion, Hitt said.

During a speech to a number of local industry leaders and elected officials during an Industry Appreciation lunch held at Strom Thurmond High School, the commerce secretary said the state is growing, but the work of economic development is a “contact sport.”

“I’m here to tell you that your state is doing well economically. This is a contact sport. We need to work on this every day,” Hitt said.

Since initiatives started during former Gov. Nikki Haley’s tenure, Hitt said more than 100,000 new jobs have been recruited to South Carolina and there has been $27 billion in capital investment.

The unemployment rate has fallen as a state from 11.7 percent to 4.4 percent.

“That’s not me, that’s everybody in this room,” he said. “Companies don’t locate in the state. They don’t locate in a state agency. They locate in communities.”

He said counties often have different priorities and needs, and pockets of the western region are mostly made up of rural communities like Edgefield. The secretary talked about the importance of growth in those areas, saying one of the things he’s seen is that the Department of Commerce is working more with agriculture.

“In a lot of our rural communities, agriculture is a real strength of our communities, and it’s something we need to build on,” he said.

He added the state also needs to have “good logistics,” and discussed boosting infrastructure as well as education.

The S.C. Legislature has created a rural infrastructure board to fund water and sewer systems throughout the state, and he says officials are also putting federal monies to action to help rural areas.

He went on to mention the work of the Coordinating Council for Workforce Development, and the focus on K-12, technical training and higher education. It’s important kids also be educated about the job opportunities in the state, he said.

Will Williams, president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda Counties, said current apprenticeship programs are good tools to attract young people to manufacturing jobs.

Williams said Tuesday’s event recognizes the state’s annual industry appreciation week.

“Obviously, existing industry is the backbone; it makes our communities better, so this event was held to recognize and appreciate what we have in Edgefield in terms of the investors and job creators in the community,” he said.

Edgefield County Council Chairman Dean Campbell also said often new companies grab the headlines, but it’s just as important that existing businesses receive praise. Some recently announced expansions in Edgefield County mentioned during the lunch were USFibers and Bondex.

Edgefield County Council also presented Hitt with a resolution recognizing his work in the county and state.

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