COMMENTARY: Rose-colored glasses

COMMENTARY: Rose-colored glasses

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Every year, The Times and Democrat rightly joins in on a week-long statewide tribute to industry. But every year, The T&D coverage and editorials on the subject turn out to be mere kiss-up pieces that ignore hard facts -- facts that for some reason the newspaper refuses to publicly discuss during Industry Appreciation Week or any other week.

Why is it that there is no coverage on whether we are getting a reasonable rate of return on our taxpayer-fueled economic development investments? Why are the high salaries paid to supposedly nonprofit economic development executives and staff sacrosanct from public scrutiny? And why, especially during Industry Appreciation Week, are the real impediments to future industrial expansion not discussed?

For instance, look at the big "news" afforded Bamberg County in The T&D this year. The Bamberg Piggy Wiggly was the only new significant job-generating (60 retail jobs) event for the entire year. So for Industry Appreciation Week, The T&D felt obliged to repeat, in full, a story it first ran on the store opening on Feb. 19, 2020.

The T&D also included a Nov. 26, 2019, press release on Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing creating 16 jobs through a $600,000 expansion and a Nov. 26, 2019, press release on a poultry equipment operation creating 10 jobs near Olar via a $500,000 investment. While these announcements were certainly welcomed news, the combined $1.1 million in investments and 26 new manufacturing jobs are less than one would make in opening a chain fast-food outlet.

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The T&D conveniently leaves out in its coverage that Roc-Lon, Bamberg County's largest employer, closed. That Backwater Barrel Manufacturing of Bamberg closed. That Masonite Manufacturing of Denmark closed. And (since retail is apparently now included in The T&D's "industry" coverage) that Fred's department store, Goody's department store, Burger King in Bamberg and longtime family-owned Superior Cleaners in Bamberg all closed.

Then, to put insult on injury and highlight its lack of in-depth reporting, The T&D accepts as fact (through the SouthernCarolina Alliance) that among Bamberg County's remaining four manufacturing industries is Pegasus Home Fashions. Pegasus announced on Nov. 12, 2019, that it would be setting up a $1.1 million pillow-manufacturing plant at the former Masonite site and creating 113 jobs. That's what the press release said and what was listed as already existing in this year's Industry Appreciation list.

Problem is, no such 113 jobs have been created and the status of Pegasus' production startup is unknown. And what would be the starting textile worker wages for 113 people if the company is only investing $1.1 million? The T&D also conveniently leaves out the fact that Pegasus is being given (for $100 a year) the 200,000-square-foot facility by Bamberg County if it creates the announced jobs within three years, wherein it will also be given title to the 21-acre site.

Bamberg County has had for decades a chronic unemployment problem (as does Orangeburg County).

The county's economic development efforts are headed by the nonprofit SouthernCarolina Alliance. The regional group includes the original member counties of Bamberg, Barnwell and Allendale, plus Hampton, Colleton, Jasper, and Beaufort counties. The three original member counties are almost always among the top 10 (as is Orangeburg) counties with the state's highest unemployment. For March 2020 (pre-COVID), Allendale had the state's highest jobless rate at 6.5%, Bamberg the second highest at 6.3%, and Barnwell at number 7 at 4.7%. (Orangeburg has the sixth highest at 4.8%; the state average was 2.6%.)

And how much does this record of joblessness and recent closures cost? According to copies of the SCA's IRS Form 990 tax returns for 2017 (filed 10/02/18), the SCA's CEO made $226,600 in salary plus benefits (including retirement, insurance and company vehicle) and the SCA staff made an additional $574,166 in salaries. Bamberg County Council pays $50,000 a year in SCA membership dues, plus whatever costs might be billed to them by the SCA.

But the $750,000 in non-merit-based salaries notwithstanding, the SCA has probably been abysmally unsuccessful in recruiting new industries to Bamberg County or in retaining the ones already here for a simple reason that the SCA, Bamberg County Council and The T&D try their level best to ignore: Bamberg County has the highest county property tax rate in the entire state.

In other words, it's cheaper for a prospective industry to do business in any of South Carolina's 45 other counties than in Bamberg. Yes, a lack of amenities, no hospital, limited interstate access, no rail service and a declining quality of life are all impediments to industrial growth, but none bigger to the corporate bottom line than high county taxes. And Bamberg County Council's answer? For this year, they passed the single largest increase in the county budget in Bamberg's 123-year history.

Maybe someday, some way, some Industry Appreciation Week down the road, someone will look into the salaries, the real costs and the actual obstacles. Maybe we'll realize build-it-and-they-will-come industrial parks and spec buildings are not a strategy, that high local taxes can cause you to lose a project before it even comes looking, why no one interceded before industries closed, and the lack of return on economic development investments. Happy belated Industry Appreciation Week.

Walt Inabinet is from Bamberg

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