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Chamber to vote on state competitiveness agenda
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The Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce will vote on the state chamber’s 2013 Competitiveness Agenda at its Dec. 20 meeting. The S.C. State Chamber of Commerce presented the new agenda at the chamber’s Nov. 15 meeting.

Chamber Vice President for Public Policy and Communications Darrell Scott said there are three issues affecting South Carolina businesses. The No. 1 issue is infrastructure, he said, followed by workforce development and environmental policy. There are $25 billion in infrastructure needs in South Carolina and the state budget currently allocates about $1.2 billion annually to infrastructure. The last revenue increase for infrastructure was in 1987, Scott said; 1 million fewer people lived in the state at that time.

“Infrastructure affects competitiveness,” he said. “We have infrastructure needs across every county, every part of the state.”

The state chamber will push lawmakers to “make infrastructure financing the top priority in 2013.” The agenda notes that South Carolina spends about $15,000 per mile on its roads, while neighboring Georgia spends about $35,000 per mile and North Carolina spends about $150,000 per mile.

It will cost about $700 million to fix “malfunction junction” -- the I-20/I-26 interchange in Columbia -- a key area, Scott said. Port volumes are expected to double to more than 2 million containers by 2025 and tourism continues to grow, said Chamber Executive Director Liz Horton.

“These factors, have, and will continue to, overextend the state’s current infrastructure. Infrastructure also drives economic development which is why I believe finding funding for infrastructure improvements will be the major priority this coming year,” Horton said.

There are three things the state can do to fund “key projects” on I-85, I-26 and I-95, according to the state chamber: raise taxes, control spending or do a combination of the two.

Although the state chamber will not suggest how the state should fund the projects, Scott said, there are several options the state chamber has presented to find funds for a bettering South Carolina’s infrastructure:

• allocating general fund dollars for investments;

• presenting a statewide referendum to increase sales tax by 1 percent for specifically for infrastructure;

• raising the sales tax cap on automobiles;

• increasing the motor fuel user fee to “a level that is competitive” with neighboring North Carolina and Georgia;

• examine toll options at state borders for expanded lanes; and/or

• examine user fee increases on driver’s licenses and automobile tags “as vehicles become more fuel efficient and with increasing use of alternative sources of energy.”

Workforce development is the second factor affecting South Carolina business. Also during the Nov. 15 meeting, Dr. Tim Hardee of Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC) presented information about CCTC’s growing influence on Kershaw County’s workforce. Seventeen percent of the jobs in South Carolina require a bachelor’s degree and 26 percent of South Carolina’s market is qualified for those positions; 38 percent require a high school diploma or less with 45 percent of the state qualified. Forty-five percent of the jobs available today, however, are for people who have completed a certificate program or associates degree, but only 29 percent of the population is qualified for those jobs.

“There is a skills gap,” Scott said. “It’s a front-end and back-end issue.”

Both Hardee and Scott said 30 percent of children aren’t ready to attend school; 30 percent aren’t ready for college-level courses, Hardee said.

“We all have to be on the same page. We see the technical college as a key part of economic development,” Hardee said. “(Peggy McLean) the Kershaw County Economic Development director can attract the industry to Kershaw County, but if she doesn’t have a workforce it just will not fly. We have to do a better job. This is not a Kershaw County issue this is a state issue, but the community that figures this out is the community that is going to win in economic development.”

The state chamber focuses on eighth to 12th grades, the Education and Economic Development Act (EEDA) and the technical college system, Scott said. Early childhood education has become a new focus, as well as school readiness.

CCTC has about 4,500 students in four counties and the savings is significant for students who go to CCTC for the first two years of their college career and then transfer, Hardee said. About 15 percent of Kershaw County School District (KCSD) students go to CCTC. Twenty-five percent is considered ideal, and about 200 high school seniors are in dual-enrollment programs at the school. The average age of a CCTC student is 28 and 70 percent of the student population is female. Hardee partnered with the KCSD to provide a scholarship for a student graduating in 2015 that has a “C” average and does well on the placement test in order to encourage students to come to CCTC sooner.

“It doesn’t matter if you want to go into welding or if you want to become a nurse, this is the way for the students at the three high schools in Kershaw County to have access to higher education,” Hardee said.

Environmental and energy policies, economic development and healthcare are other issues that the state chamber will try to address in the upcoming year, Scott said. Healthcare is the most costly budget item for businesses, according the agenda. The state chamber said it will continue gathering information and take a stance once “critical analysis” in regard to the federal healthcare expansion has been completed.  

KCCC’s 2012-2014 strategic plan focuses on workforce and economic development, so they will continue reinforcing those elements on a local level, while “providing as much support as the board approves at the state level and also through the Midstate Chambers Coalition,” Horton said.

“We’ve gotten a lot of things done relating to unemployment insurance and keeping South Carolina union free. We are in the top 10… but we aren’t No. 1,” Scott said. “This isn’t the State Chamber of Commerce’s agenda, it’s the business communities’ agenda.”

The chamber develops the agenda through a “grassroots” initiative that includes traveling to 10 different areas around South Carolina and speaking with the business community and local municipalities, as well as the local chambers. The state chamber’s focus is on advocacy and increasing competitiveness.