(Third in a series.)
A group intent on spurring economic development in Kershaw County took a closer look at what one competitor has been doing.
The group, led by Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns, included County Administrator Vic Carpenter, County Economic Development Director Peggy McLean, Kershaw County School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan, attorney Ben Connell and banker Dennis Steuber. The group came back with a number of impressions. An important one is Lexington County is serious about economic development, to the point where it has made some major investments in its future -- and those investments have reaped rewards.
Another, equally important impression is Kershaw County needs to become as engaged -- and quickly -- if it wishes to be a player in the economic development game in South Carolina, and the world.
The group visited Richland-Lexington School District 5’s Center for Advanced Technical Studies (CATES), as well as an industrial park, where three major companies during the last six years have made their home.
Both are examples of what a community -- and a school district -- can do if everyone works together toward a common vision, Burns said.
It is this type of clear vision, careful planning and resolute action Burns says is vital to economic development in Kershaw County.
The group first spent a couple of hours touring CATES, funded by a referendum in 2008 and which opened its doors to 650 students in the Lexington 5 School District in 2013. The school offers a wide variety of programs of study in four different major areas, Fine Arts and Humanities; Business Management and Information Systems; Engineering, Manufacturing and Industrial Technology; and Health Science, Human and Public Services.
The building, which cost some $23.5 million to build and equip, is built to be multi-functional, welcoming and conducive to a learning atmosphere. The labs and work spaces are spacious and stocked with state-of-the-art equipment.
“Call it what you want, but this is what your competition is doing,” Morgan said.
The school’s media arts studio has all the equipment, computers and programs used in television and movie production today. CATES Assistant Director Dr. Al Gates said only some of the larger market television stations in the state are better equipped.
But it goes farther than just curriculum and facilities, CATES Director Dr. Bob Couch said.
“The students take ownership of their learning,” Couch said. “Every student can be creative and engaged, and we want them to do that. No learning can occur unless the student is engaged -- and the best way to do that is to let them take ownership of it.”
For example, a student may take on a capstone project -- a long-term learning challenge in which the student identifies a problem and then works toward a solution. Some of the results are quite impressive. One project in the health sciences area now has a patent for a drinking “sippy” cup which can be used by persons with severe spinal injuries, Couch said. A number of students already have patents on their projects.
The school does not offer courses or programs of study already taught in district high schools, so as to avoid repetition of services, Gates said. They are also proactive in community, business and other educational partnerships, he said.
One idea Kershaw County and the Kershaw County School District wants to implement is to relocate the district’s Applied Technology Education Center (ATEC) to the new Central Carolina Technical College Campus at I-20 Exit 98. The project to move ATEC there was included in a failed school bond referendum in November 2014, Morgan noted. The idea is to centralize technical learning; students could take college courses and complete high school requirements at the combined campus.
CATES’ mission is to “prepare every student to graduate college and career-ready, enter the global workforce and be successful and a contributing citizen in solving problems,” and to do this by teaching the students skills in high-tech, high paying areas while at the same time encouraging them to think creatively, analytically and cooperatively.
Ultimately, one of the results is to help develop a local workforce ready to take on the challenges of the global economy, Couch said,
CATES’ $23.5 million price tag, in today’s dollars, would translate to around $28 million to $29 million, Couch said.
Couch said his district’s referendum was not without its challenges. However, Richland-Lexington School District 5 was able to sell the idea of the school by first agreeing on a common vision for what they wanted the school to accomplish. Once they knew that, they could engage with appropriate people in the business community, general community, parents and -- most importantly -- students.
The next stop for the Kershaw County group was Lexington County’s Saxe-Gotha Industrial Park located off I-77. The site, first developed in 2007, is currently home to three major companies and a spec building -- and it is rapidly reaching capacity, according to Lexington County Economic Development Director Charles Whipple.
“Lexington County took a leap of faith and the county has positioned itself to be a player,” Whipple said.
More specifically, Lexington County Council committed to develop the industrial park and invested some $13 million in land, roads, signage and infrastructure. Fewer than 10 years later, the investment has yielded a return of some $500 million in capital investment, Whipple said.
“It used to be that you could point to a cornfield and say, ‘that’s the next industrial park,’” Whipple said. “You can’t do that anymore -- the companies just won’t wait.”
However, taking care of what is already there is equally important. Whipple said his goal is to call on 100 companies within Lexington County each year.
“This is what our competitors are doing and this is what we need to work on,” Burns said. “We need to invest in ourselves. They have invested in roads, in signage, in buildings. We need to make ourselves competitive, build that workforce, develop product -- we have allowed too many opportunities to get away.”