Charleston Mayor Joe Riley likens the current economic crisis to the kind of calamity he knows best: hurricanes.

“We want to make sure no one is injured and the recovery is quick,” he says.

The mayor has launched an early salvo of incentives in a local effort to stimulate the economy, making it clear that he needs all hands on deck.

The city hopes to help local businesses by hosting “Weathering the Economy” forums (there’s that storm metaphor again). Hosted in different business districts over the coming weeks and months, the forums will include things like legal and financial assistance on renegotiating lease or bank loans.

“We want to make sure local businesses have all the resources they need,” Riley says. “There are small businesses without the (internal) capacity for this kind of help.”

Restaurants could also get a little help from the suspension of sidewalk dining fees. Opportunities aren’t plentiful (there are few streets with enough room for foot traffic and café tables), but the mayor says that this is just the beginning and that other efforts will follow as the city identifies concerns.

Local communities have put more energy in making sure the businesses that are already here have what they need, says Steve Warner, head of business development at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, a Lowcountry nonprofit that serves as a marketing and project consultant for economic development. In tough times, companies are weighing consolidations to cut costs. The determination of whether a company would expand or cut staffing in the Lowcountry would be based on a number of factors, including the local job market and the quality of local facilities.

“You want to make sure that if you have a company here, they’re familiar with your strengths,” Warner says. “You want to make sure you keep what you’ve got.”

Some local businesses have taken the initiative by supporting one another through Lowcountry Local First, advocating for buying from local vendors to keep money in the region. Members gathered in a closed door meeting last week to share ideas and opportunities. You couldn’t see desperation but you certainly felt that fierce urgency of now.

Opportunities for drawing new business
to Charleston may be fewer in number, but Warner notes that industries like renewable energy, manufacturing, distribution and
logistics, and security are still showing
interest.

To address these needs, the alliance has been crafting its website to be a 24-hour information source for CEOs and site consultants. Site selection these days is done on the internet, says Karen Kuchenbecker, the alliance’s head of marketing.

“By the time they’re calling us, we’re on the shortlist,” she says.

The city is also looking to bring in new business. In December, Riley named Ernest Andrade as the head of business development. Andrade has been working with the city since 2001 to draw in high-tech jobs through the Charleston Digital Corridor. He said last week that the city’s larger effort for business development will take the best ideas from the corridor and expand them to other in-demand sectors.

To that end, the city is expected to open a business resource center this spring that will provide office space for Andrade and his staff as well as room to romance prospects and offer aid to existing business owners.

“This will take economic development to a retail level,” Andrade says.

The city will also launch a new website that will collect local business news stories and provide online resources for those interested in locating here.

“The key is what we’re doing is tangible and proactive,” Andrade says.

Finally, the Digital Corridor’s nonprofit foundation will pay the business license fees for up to two years for start-up companies focused on computer software, life sciences, and medical devices.

Riley stressed that this is just the beginning of the city’s business development push, not the end.

“We want to challenge ourselves every day,” Riley says, noting there may be as many as a dozen individual programs, depending on what the business market needs to thrive.


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