Rebounding from COVID, a Stronger Community

By Barry Waldman

One of the great regrets of economic developers and municipal planners in regions throughout the nation is the lack of coordination among the multitude of communities that comprises each region.

The Charleston area faces this challenge at times, but it also engages in significant regional economic development, with a regional Chamber of Commerce, regional Council of Governments and regional Development Alliance. Together, these three organizations are leading an inclusive, collaborative effort to build upon comprehensive regional planning called the One Region Strategy, launched in 2016, for use in the post-Covid recovery.

Covid has spotlighted some previously unrecognized shortcomings in the area – the lack of universal broadband access, for example – and provided regional leaders an opportunity to identify and correct them. The new venture is called One Region Roadmap: Opportunities for All.

Equity and Economic Momentum

The effort began in Spring of 2021 with an initiative gathering opinions from a wide range of community members across the three counties. Consultants conducted focus group sessions involving 170 individuals representing 100 diverse organizations. An online survey is available to the entire community here until August 20. Look for virtual public meetings in the Fall designed to shape the gathered information into definitive actions the region can take.

“Public input is critical in creating the most comprehensive plan our region has ever seen.  Each of us is responsible for moving our community forward,” said Kendra Stewart, One Region chair and director of the Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston.

The effort is organized around two themes: equity and economic momentum, says Brent Jonas, Director, Stakeholder Relations at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA). Together, they aim to maintain the robust economic recovery from Covid, while extending its benefits to the entire community, including those members traditionally left behind.

“Traditional indicators are showing that we are coming out of the Covid damage better than other communities, but recovery means different things to different demographic and socioeconomic groups,” Jonas said.

Achievable Action Steps to Move the Community Forward

The kind of action that might result from the roadmap process is a scaled-up focus on affordable and attainable housing, a problem that pre-existed Covid but has been exacerbated by the influx of newcomers to the Lowcountry. Many efforts are already underway, but most of them are at too small a scale to have a systemic effect.

The intent of the roadmap’s organizers is to create achievable actionable steps, said Brian Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber. “This partnership is built on the shared desire of the public and private sectors to make our region stronger and more resilient when facing major disruptions, such as the global pandemic, and addressing long-standing challenges, such as those related to inequality,” he said.

The devastation to the U.S. economy wrought by Covid fell more heavily on blue collar workers, minorities and women. Even now, the unemployment rate for Black and Latino Americans is nearly double the rate for White Americans.

In preparing the roadmap, several issues have already bubbled to the surface. Recruiting and retaining talent for the industries that are driving economic development in the region is a common top challenge. An inventory of housing across all price points, particularly below the median, is beginning to become a barrier as well.

Other aspects of life that have changed permanently after Covid include remote work and the rush to produce electric vehicles. The roadmap will have to take these altered lifestyles into account.

A Good Place to Do Business

Businesses generally praise the region’s economic development efforts. Sam Konduros of KOR Medical, a clinical cannabis firm launched by the Charleston-based diagnostic and testing company Vikor Scientific, is appreciative of the support his sector has received from government authorities.

While he says there is always a need for more infrastructure, whether that means an enhanced highway system, clean rooms or industrial space, and more sources of venture capital for young businesses, he says the area has a strong template for growth.

“If I were a new company looking in this area, I would want CRDA on the front end, I would want the South Carolina Research Authority and the Charleston Metro Chamber involved and potential funding partners that can support you,” he said.

The roadmap is expected to be complete in February of 2022. For more information, visit oneregionstrategy.com.


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