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Economic development: Port remains focus for legislators

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Natural gas exploration off the South Carolina coast could be the engine that revitalizes Georgetown’s port, members of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce were told this week.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch said gas exploration parties are interested in Georgetown because of its port during a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Chamber at Land’s End Restaurant. “Charleston doesn’t want it. We do,” said Goldfinch, a first-term Republican from Murrells Inlet. “If there’s any way to get the port dredged, a gas company coming with its freight, will do it.”

Goldfinch said the state trails North Carolina and Virginia in natural gas leasing. “Hopefully,” he said, “we could have natural gas exploration by 2017.”

State Sen. Yancey McGill, a Democrat from Kingstree, said efforts are moving forward to secure $15 million in state money to serve as a match for federal dredging funds for Georgetown’s port. Meanwhile, he met with officials from the S.C. Ports Authority and told

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them the facilities in Georgetown were in “terrible condition” and asked for the port to be renovated and improved in conjunction with the channel’s dredging.

McGill said a five-member delegation, along with Gov. Nikki Haley, will meet in Washington, D.C., soon to discuss the port. “In two months,” McGill said, “we’ll know where we are.”

In addition, McGill said state leaders had met with an industry considering Georgetown County that would export 300,000 tons of freight a year through the port.

Goldfinch, McGill and the other members of the Georgetown County Legislative Delegation, Sen. Ray Cleary, a Republican from Murrells Inlet, and Rep. Carl Anderson, a Democrat from Georgetown, talked about a range of issues during the breakfast.

Cleary said he is concerned about the condition of South Carolina’s roads and bridges after a decade of poor maintenance.

Cleary said 53 percent of the state’s secondary roads and 47 percent of primary roads are rated “poor.” The state has 1,641 substandard bridges.

“These numbers were presented to Gov. Sanford in 2003,” Cleary said, “and he ignored them. We’ve been ignoring them for 10 years. If we want a four-lane Highway 521 and I-73, we need to look at how we fund roads. There are some things government needs to provide.”

Anderson said the legislature approved $300,000 for economic development in Georgetown County during its last session. That follows $100,000 in 2011 and $500,000 in 2012, he said. “We can see things being boosted from Andrews to Murrells Inlet,” he said.

Other issues discussed included:

Rental house property taxes: Cleary said he hopes to get a bill through next year that will extend the number of days a property owner can rent his house and retain the 4 percent tax rate of a primary residence. “It’s a fairness issue,” Cleary said, “that will allow people to keep their houses.” He said insurance costs for houses on the beach can reach $30,000 a year, and rental income is essential for some owners. “I won’t say those costs are outrageous because you choose to live on the beach,” Cleary said.

Truth in seafood: Goldfinch said seafood labeling legislation has been introduced because of dishonest restaurateurs and seafood dealers. “If a restaurant is serving grouper for $9,” he said, “it’s probably Asian catfish.”

He said local fishermen and shrimpers are competing in an international market. “The bill,” Goldfinch said, “means they have to tell you the truth if it’s Asian catfish.”

Marketing: Georgetown County will get an additional $10,000 and the city of Georgetown will get $20,000 more for promoting business and growth this year, McGill said. “We’ve got to focus on the local area,” he said, “and find what little things we can do to focus on business. When businesses do poorly, it causes a hardship on the economy.” He told Chamber members to be positive and aggressive in promoting the local area.

Brian Tucker, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, announced plans for a “Start-Up Weekend” for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas for the opportunity to get resources for a start-up Sept. 27-29. “We have to start growing our own,” Tucker said.

Health care: Goldfinch said “Obamacare” will force businesses to downsize in order to get below the 50-employee threshold for mandatory health-care coverage. He said companies will move full-time employees to part-time to avoid health-care mandates. With South Carolina’s refusal to accept federal funds for Medicare expansion, McGill said, he expects to see some rural hospitals closing over the next three to five years. “We are going to see devastation in health care,” he said.

Money matters: McGill praised the operations of the city, the county and the school district during his remarks. “Not every community enjoys the fiscal responsibility you have in Georgetown County,” he said.

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