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Downtown, workforce development topics at chamber meeting

Author: Gene Zaleski

Source: T and D

September 25, 2014

Revitalizing downtown business districts to help spawn economic development was among the local priorities mentioned Wednesday morning at the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s Orangeburg County grassroots meeting.

“If rural areas are going to make it, we need the downtown to make it,” Cox Industries President and CEO Mikee Johnson said. He is also chairman of the state Workforce Investment Board.

The meeting brought together business and economic development leaders at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. The meetings are the first step in creating the state chamber’s Competitiveness Agenda, its annual list of legislative priorities.

Johnson said the expense of renovating buildings makes revitalization difficult.

For example, he purchased the former 1058 Russell Street building for about $16,000 and put about $500,000 into renovating it. Today, the building is the home of Rosalia’s Mexican Restaurant.

“A half million invested in an old building in downtown probably won’t make you a bunch of money,” he said. “Every little town in all these little counties is slam full of these issues. Coming up with solution to that is not easy.”

He is also the owner of the former Sifly Building downtown. The roof of the building collapsed in 2012. Johnson has discussed swapping the property with the city of Orangeburg in a move that would bring the Cox headquarters downtown.

Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce President Dede Cook said the chamber and the Downtown Orangeburg Revitalization Association have conducted a market analysis of the city and will soon have an idea of what businesses to attract to Orangeburg.

“I think it can happen,” Cook said. “I just think it will take some real effort and an understanding that downtowns will never be what they used to be.”

Orangeburg Parks and Recreation Director Shaniqua Simmons said Orangeburg needs to call itself a college town and improve the city’s assets.

“How do we keep our employers happy and how do we get on the map to say, ‘Hey, I am going to entertain having a business in Orangeburg?’” she said.

Simmons said the city has a great location and has one of only three municipal golf courses in the state.

“Everyone knows about the Rose Garden, ... but we need to capitalize on other leisure activities within the Rose Garden. In the 25 to 35 age group, they don’t want to look at roses,” Simmons said.

Simmons suggested more events geared toward young people.

Eutawville Mayor Jefferson Johnson said all the suggestions and requests put forth will come to naught without an internal assessment.

“Nobody wants to change,” Johnson said, explaining many individuals he has come into contact with want to remain in their granddaddy’s day. “There needs to be a mindset change.”

Besides downtown revitalization, concerns raised included workforce development, education improvement, small business recruitment and infrastructure development.

“We have to have our kids ready to work,” said Joe McFalls, Tri-County Regional Chamber of Commerce board president.

OCtech President Dr. Walt Tobin said the perception of public schools needs to be improved.

“We have almost 700 students in three school districts and two private schools .. attaining dual-credit courses,” Tobin said.

He said when these students leave high school, they have some college credit.

Johnson said one key is for more small business engagement.

“How do we get the business community in Orangeburg and around the state to do the same lifting that we expect the Commerce Department to do?” Johnson said. “We can’t operate faster if we are not all on the same page.”

The meeting was sponsored by the S.C. Chamber, Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce and the Tri-County Regional Chamber of Commerce. It is the first step in creating the competitiveness agenda, the business community’s annual list of legislative priorities.

The state Chamber of Commerce will take the matters of concern and use them as talking points for the coming 2015 legislative session.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551.

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