Gov.-elect Nikki Haley made her first and most important cabinet appointment Monday, offering hope for journalists across the state that you, too, could one day lead job recruitment efforts for the Palmetto State.
Haley has picked BMW spokesman and government liaison Bobby Hitt to lead the Commerce Department. Earlier this year, Haley was heralded by Newsweek as “the face of the new South.” Announcing the Commerce pick, Haley called Hitt “the face of BMW” in South Carolina. Some would argue that Columbia has enough faces, what it needs is heads and hearts.
Hitt’s first career involved climbing the reporting ranks to manage The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper. He left the business nearly two decades ago, landing at BMW. It is an impressive resumé, but the key to hiring is matching the experience to the job requirements.
The State referred to the Commerce Department as South Carolina’s “job recruitment agency” and The Post and Courier referred to the role of commerce chief as the Palmetto State’s “top recruiting agent.” With that in mind, it’s hard to ooh and ahh over Haley’s first pick.
Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, tried to highlight Hitt’s experience as the alliance’s chairman, but his attempt came off more like a desperate search for validity. “He is as well-qualified for this as anybody she could have found,” Gossett told The State. According to the story, Gossett also notes Hitt “had been in the room during negotiations.”
South Carolina doesn’t need a spokesman; it needs a salesman. There are 50 states competing for the few businesses that are not just hiring, but growing, and the commerce secretary should be someone who has been at the table sealing the deal, not just in the room.
That’s enough about this bad choice. Lets look ahead to what Hitt can accomplish as commerce secretary. Hitt’s lack of experience may put recruitment on the backburner, but his work for BMW could provide an opportunity to improve coordination among port operations, workforce training, and economic development efforts, both statewide and at the local level. There is some value in this, but only on an interim basis. The best coordination in the nation would mean nothing if we can’t get companies to come to South Carolina to reward the effort.
Unfortunately, the Haley administration may be more focused on two other issues, the first being Haley’s proposal to eliminate the corporate income tax. There were few things Haley would clearly point to as a priority on the campaign trail (just ask school choice supporters), but the one thing she put her weight behind from one stump speech to the next was eliminating the state’s already remarkably low corporate income tax. Considering many are still puzzling at the real value of this proposal, Hitt may be tasked with selling it as a necessary economic development tool.
Another local issue may also play into Hitt’s role at the Commerce Department. Explaining her position on economic development during a gubernatorial debate earlier this fall, Haley oddly mentioned “dual rail access.” It was a reference to the debate in North Charleston over how to get containers to and from the new port terminal.
Mayor Keith Summey has worked out a deal with rail line CSX for access south of the port, thus preserving his redevelopment plans to the north. Competitor Norfolk Southern has cried foul and pleaded for relief from the Commerce Department and state legislators for shared northern access that could very well run over Summey’s vision. When Haley mentions dual rail access, she’s talking about aiding Norfolk Southern in its effort.
As the P&C noted Wednesday, private developers who now own lots north of the new port site could partner with the Department of Commerce in an effort to condemn property for rail access. On a trip earlier this year to South Carolina in search of public support, Norfolk Southern officials noted limited rail access may concern one of the company’s biggest clients: Hitt’s former employer, BMW.