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Economy: County creates tech park to keep firm from moving

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

All’s fair in love, war and industrial recruiting.

When Horry County saw the opportunity to lure Mercom and a new technology park away from Pawleys Island, its economic development team pulled out a bag of incentives for owner Stella Mercado.

Mercom develops computer network and security solutions for companies and the federal government and its headquarters at Petigru Drive and Commerce Lane is bursting at the seams. When the expansion church Mission Pawleys decided to back away from plans to develop 22 acres on Petigru it hoped to buy from Waccamaw Landscaping, Mercado could envision both a quick fix in an existing building and a long-term expansion plan with room to build and grow right across the road. Georgetown County signed off on changes to the “planned development” and opened the way for a 20,000-square foot headquarters building that would be the crown jewel of a Mercom magnet tech park.

Horry County saw an opening to get the tech park for itself and made an offer of financial and tax incentives that Georgetown County would have a tough time matching.

“Horry, by all accounts, had them,” said Georgetown County Council Member Steve Goggans, who was familiar with the property because he had worked on the “planned development” for three different clients. “Mercom was originally doing a straight purchase to develop the facilities,” he said.

“Sometime after that, after the PD was done, the situation became competitive between the counties.”

The deal-making stayed below the radar. Jean Rothrock, owner of the property, said she never heard the sale was in flux.

“Every economic development deal is fluid until it’s not,” said Brian Tucker, county economic development director. “There are always tweaks, changes, twists and turns. Those conversations are really, really sensitive. We couldn’t have scripted it better. It turned out ideal with land around an anchor tenant.”

Goggans said Georgetown County matched most of Horry’s incentives. “It came down to our willingness to work with them,” he said, “and, secondly, I think Stella Mercado’s interest and commitment to the community. She enjoys living at Pawleys Island and raising her children here. She’s gotten very involved in the community. I think that’s what swung it.”

Mercado didn’t want to talk about the negotiations between the neighboring counties but seemed happy that Georgetown won out. “I want to thank Sel Hemingway, Brian Tucker, the Economic Alliance and County Council,” she said. “Obviously, we committed to stay. We need a corporate environment so we can grow into it. The tech park will allow for that.”

The Georgetown County Alliance for Economic Development was the wild card in the deck. With assistance from the S.C. Department of Commerce, it was able to secure a $950,000 loan from Santee Cooper to buy 14.5 acres of the tech park property for future development. Mercom Holdings spent $525,000 for 7.4 acres, according to county records, and said it planned to spend about $6 million on facilities that would create more than 150 jobs over the next five years.

Tucker said conversations with Mercom were always Big Picture: creating an environment to recruit tech-based companies to a place with a high-quality of life. “She’s been able to prove that her business model works,” Tucker said. “She’s always felt like a bit of a pioneer and other companies were interested in what she’s doing.”

That’s Tucker’s sales pitch when he’s on the economic development trail. “That’s the target for us: to get companies nimble enough to do something from where ever they want to do it,” he said. “It played out in a more tangible way with Mercom.”

Tucker said high-tech is the sweet spot for Georgetown County and particularly the Waccamaw Neck with its limited land. The big elephant is Arcadia East, thousands of acres south of Pawleys Island between Highway 17 and the ocean envisioning high-tech industry, golf courses, housing and hotels. “Arcadia came up a number of times,” Tucker said. “We rolled out the grand plan for Stella several different times. She wanted to do that on a smaller scale and be part of it. She’s committed to building that type of environment, but her growth needs are immediate. Twenty years from now, we may see the Mercom expansion as the catalyst for the ultimate development of Arcadia.”

Tucker has spent a year learning the Mercom business model and adapting his sales pitch for similar companies. He travels with Stella Mercado and her brother Larry to trade shows. “That was the first time I began to understand the scale of what Mercom was doing and how many other companies are trying to do what she is doing and how synergistically they work together,” he said. “It’s not a completely competitive environment but a value-added process.”

That, said Tucker, is how Georgetown County will sell itself to industry. “It’s a knowledge-based economy,” he said. “It’s not where you are. It’s what you know.”

Tucker said Santee Cooper could help finance a spec building in the tech park if the Alliance sees a need. It’s the state-owned utility’s mission to grow the economy and improve the lives of South Carolinians. The county could finance infrastructure in the tech park through its Capital Improvement Plan.

“At the end of the day,” Tucker said,” economic development and job creation is very much a team sport. The governor talks about Team South Carolina. There is no better representative than Georgetown County when it comes to the team approach. There are so many moving pieces and parts that nobody can do it all.”

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