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Economy: Forum looks for ways to reverse decline in young families

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Developing a plan to keep young families in Georgetown County by providing more opportunities proved a complex assignment for 30 community leaders this week during a day-long discussion at the Bunnelle Foundation’s headquarters.

The 2010 Census showed that Georgetown County is losing population in the 18-44 age group as people leave for better-paying jobs and opportunities in communities where they felt safer and more welcome.

David Dodson of the non-profit organization MDC of Durham, N.C., led the session titled “Passing Gear Philanthropy: Catalyzing Community Change” for the county leaders. “Can philanthropy be a catalyst for the future we’d like to see?” Dodson asked. “What if Georgetown County worked for everyone?”

Participants broke into groups to answer his second question and presented a number of goals:

• Expectations would be even across all demographics,

• Attitudes could change regardless of neighborhoods,

• Healthy foods would be available,

• Every family would have one person earning a living wage,

• There would be adequate child care, environmental protection and access to health care.

A group with school superintendent Randy Dozier, Georgetown Chief of Police Paul Gardner, education consultant Sheryn Waterman and Bishop John Smith came up with the words that seemed to strike a chord with everyone and became the unofficial mission statement: “All young people have hope.”

Dodson said the exodus of families with young children is a worrisome sign for a county with generational poverty and a fast-growing aging population. “That trough of prime, working age adults forms an unusual pattern,” he said while looking at a graph of the county’s age groups. “The future is vitally dependant on retention of those working age young adults.”

Poverty, said Judy Ingle, drives the community’s challenges. “If you’re poor,” she said, “you have issues with health, education, transportation and jobs. We’ve got to show them a better way.” Smith said poverty is at the root of most ills, but programs deal with “the top of the tree.” Poverty frames thinking, action and expectations, he said.

Lower expectations aren’t exclusive to the poor. Larry Mercado, owner of a high-tech computer business in Pawleys Island, said he came from Fairfax County, Va., where expectations for high schools students are through the roof. At Waccamaw High School, where his daughter enrolled, students didn’t aspire to that same level, he said. “I had to fight with her to make sure she didn’t develop that same attitude,” he said. “That’s the root of the problem. People in this county do not have high expectations.”

For blacks, Smith said, there is a “slave mentality” that says don’t rock the boat. “Sometimes,” he said, “we can’t understand people when we haven’t been where they’ve been.”

Developing a strategy for others becomes very tricky. Celeste Pringle, assistant superintendent for the county schools, said people don’t want a top-down solution. “Don’t make decisions for me,” she said. “Some of us who are the ‘haves’ haven’t changed our thinking.”

Culture, Dodson said, will eat strategy for lunch.

Georgetown County’s population does not follow trends in the South, Dodson said. The African-American population is falling and the number of whites over age 55 is rising faster than state averages. “It’s very different from many places in the South,” Dodson said.

Improving the quality of education was put forward as a solution to the exodus of young families. Dozier said he would compare the Georgetown County schools to any in the state after two “Excellent” report cards.

Brian Tucker, the county’s director of economic development, said he recognized that education and jobs are linked. “The issues feed off each other,” he said. “It’s the chicken and egg. These things have to happen together.”

County manufacturing has steadily declined since 2003 through a combination of factors, Tucker said. A national trend was made worse by strategic plant closures. “Once you start a downward spiral,” he said, “it takes extraordinary circumstances to reverse it.”

Peg Howell said Georgetown County doesn’t feel the same urgency as communities where large numbers of jobs are lost at once. “We don’t have the motivation that comes with crisis,” she said.

Data shows that 45 percent of residents left Georgetown County for work 10 years ago. Now 52 percent go elsewhere. Dodson said geography is on Georgetown County’s side. It sits between two larger economic engines: Horry and Charleston counties. “Situational assets give you choices,” he said. “This is not like the Mississippi Delta. People can live and work where they please.”

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