How are new jobs coming to the Grand Strand?

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Horry County suffers high unemployment and a seasonal job market and local leaders think your tax dollars can fix both.

An economic development group isn't a new idea for Horry County; in fact there's been one in existence for decades. Three years ago county leaders decided it was time to use taxpayer money to help the efforts. That revamp created the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation and leaders say your tax dollars are working to attract new jobs, infrastructure and a diversified economy.

Brad Lofton, president and CEO of the MBREDC, says since January 2012 the MBREDC created more than 750 jobs from eight new projects. Three of them are corporate headquarters that will relocate to Horry County.

Of those jobs, only about 350 people are working full time in the created positions.

"Part of our challenge is we have a limited amount of industrial product here," Lofton says. "So from the time it takes you to get an announcement here, to the time it takes them to construct a facility, to ramp up the workforce, sometimes that's an 18 month process."

It's a process that Lofton says is working. AvCraft is just one business that found success with the MBREDC's help.

"The grant gave us the opportunity to improve the spaces to bring in a different product line and thus we need more employees to service that line," AvCraft CEO Mike Hill says.

Lofton's group targets manufacturing businesses like AvCraft so Horry County will have a strengthened economy not only dependent on tourism related jobs that typically pay minimum wage.

"We have about 153,000 people in our workforce today and about 50,000 of those folks are making around $8/hour or $16,000/year," Lofton says. "That's tough, that's not necessarily what you'd consider a living wage."

Lofton admits there are some challenges to doing business in Horry County and he's working to change perceptions of the workforce here,

"A lot of our clients question whether we can fulfill those highly skilled manufacturing jobs," Lofton says. "So we have to allow them to meet with our other manufacturers and interview with our technical college and explain that we can indeed meet that demand."

Lofton says the majority of businesses also need to be near an interstate, another disadvantage for Horry County. Then, there's the unpredictable and uncontrollable downfall.

"The potential risk of a hurricane is an issue that we struggle with," Lofton says. "A lot of companies wonder why they should invest $40 to $50 million here on the coast when they're in the potential path of a hurricane."

AvCraft's Hill says the MBREDC doesn't solely focus on relocating business, in fact he says it's more economical to help local businesses expand.

"More employees are brought on board through existing industry and growth than it is from attracting and relocating companies to this area," Hill says.

Lofton and his team at the MBREDC are funded by a mix of public and private dollars. The private money is from members who pay to be part of the organization. Lofton says those private dollars are solely used for any type of recruitment spending, such as hotels, dinners, recreation and entertainment. Your tax dollars fund MBREDC operations including staff salaries and any incentives offered to businesses.

The MBREDC got $1.3 million this year from Horry County. Lofton says $600,000 goes into an incentive fund for businesses that choose Horry County and meet certain criteria. He says $200,000 goes to NESA and $500,000 funds staff salaries and general operating costs. I've asked the MBREDC several times to break down how much of the $500,000 goes to salaries and how much is general operating costs, but they have yet to respond to my request.

Add to that $1.3 million, tax money from almost every other Horry County municipality.

"The community needs to create jobs," Lofton says about why public money is needed.

"We know we're not very diversified as a local economy, because most of our development has been in tourism. It will continue to be our economic engine, but we have to start patterning ourselves after Charleston, Orlando, [they] continue to be a tourism leader but they also excel in aerospace, technology, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals and corporate headquarters."

The MBREDC also wants to attract aerospace companies. State and local leaders have been vocal about expanding Boeing's reach from the Lowcountry, but some people wonder if it's taking too long to feel the ripple effects in Horry County.

"The 787 production line is just ramping up where it needs to be for suppliers to relocate here," Lofton says. "We're talking to about half a dozen Boeing suppliers right now, so we've been engaged and we've been active."

Lofton hopes those suppliers not only choose Horry County, but choose to set up their business in the vacant ITAP building near the airport. The project cost millions of dollars to build but continues to sit empty.

"We'd like to withhold ITAP for aerospace for as long as we can," Lofton says. "There's a lot of land in the county and only 400 acres earmarked for aerospace clients."

Another industry Lofton says he wants to see prosper alongside tourism is agri-business.

"We're feeding 15 million people a year at the beach, why shouldn't we be producing that product in the NESA region and supplying those restaurants here and benefiting our farmers and our business community?" Lofton says.

In the almost two years since the MBREDC has aggressively hunted jobs, Lofton says they've had time to finely tune their process and soon Horry County will see employment explode.

"I can tell you we have 30 active projects right now, that represent anywhere from 4-5,000 jobs, $600 to $700 million in capital investment and we believe in the next 90 days you'll see some of those projects named."

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