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Economy: Jobs vs. tourism at center of mill site debate

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Residents of Georgetown’s minority community, the West End, appeared skeptical about potential new uses for the town’s shuttered steel mill during a public input session before panelists from the Urban Land Institute this week.

Ten ULI members, including experts in transportation, land use, real estate, urban planning and waterfront design, are visiting Georgetown to interview hundreds of people and form a road map for citizens to use in redeveloping both the ArcelorMittal steel mill property and the Port of Georgetown. Panelist John Banka of Chicago, a Furman University graduate who works in economic development in the U.S. and Europe for Colliers International, said the property is “one of the more interesting situations I have seen.”

Alma White, a West End resident and Georgetown County’s clerk of court, said the steel mill brought good-paying jobs to Georgetown when it opened in 1969. Steelworkers made twice as much as she did as a school teacher. The mill created a new middle class, both black and white, able to live comfortably. “They didn’t need a Ph.D. They just had to be hard working people. They wanted to make a decent living, take care of their families, drive a nice car and have a nice house like everybody else,” she said.

White echoed the comments of several other residents in saying that a development centered on tourism would only bring minimum wage jobs to Georgetown, benefitting a few and subverting many. “If everything centered around tourism, and the lower economic community continues to only get jobs as dishwashers or people working in back,” White said, “we are never going to be able to live the way they used to live when they had jobs at the steel mill. We want some of those type jobs incorporated into the plan. We want to be an integral part of reaping some of the economic benefits.”

Simon Rutledge, another resident of Georgetown’s West End, said his neighborhood didn’t even have proper sidewalks. “People on this side of Georgetown get nothing,” he said. “If you build this building and you don’t do nothing for us here, it pushes us farther away from Georgetown. It’s gentrification in a very nice way.” Others worried that property taxes would go up or their land would be seized by eminent domain for parking.

Judging from the comments on opening night at Howard Auditorium, the panelists have been given a job that has flummoxed city and county leaders for more than a decade: How to make Georgetown great again.

They will reveal their road map to redeveloping the property on Friday at 8:30 a.m. at Winyah Auditorium. It’s not likely to include factories hiring high school graduates at good wages. Those days are gone forever. The reality of the local job market is that too many high school graduates need remediation at a community college before they can begin to learn a highly technical job skill. Georgetown County has no interstate highway, limiting its appeal to manufacturing companies like Mercedes, Volvo and Boeing that have come to Charleston and its neighboring counties.

Everett Carolina, a candidate for County Council, said Georgetown County needs those types of jobs and the wages they pay rather than more tourism and its service industry. “Improving the condition of livability for all people” should be a goal, he said.

Lauren Joseph, the county’s tourism manager, asked members of the panel to consider ways to maintain Georgetown as a working seaport. “We have one of the only surviving working waterfronts on the coast,” she said. “It’s part of the character of our town, and I think it’s really important that we don’t let development run it out.”

Former longshoreman Richard Butts said it disturbed him that there wasn’t more talk about including the maritime industry in plans. With its history, Jerry Miller said, Georgetown could become one of the premiere ports of call on the Intracoastal Waterway with the redevelopment.

Georgetown City Council Member Sheldon Butts suggested the panelists consider the redevelopment as a means of retaining the area’s young people. A study three years ago said young families were leaving Georgetown County at an alarming rate, listing a variety of insecurities.

It’s hardly feasible that the Urban Land Use panelists will solve the problems of the city and county with its recommendation on Friday. Black River United Way CEO Lucy Woodhouse told them Georgetown County is fragile, as the slow recovery of last year’s flooding has revealed. Chairman Alex Rose said the panel’s recommendations sometimes confirm the obvious. “The hard work begins after we leave,” Rose said. “We provide a road map.”

Joe Riley, former mayor of Charleston and an Urban Land Institute Visiting Fellow, spoke briefly about the Georgetown project’s potential and advised citizens to consider what the product would look like in 50 or 100 years. He advised civic leaders to have a clear vision, persistence, patience and more persistence.

“There is no opportunity like this in America,” Riley said. “You are so lucky in Georgetown, and we are lucky in South Carolina. There are so many things working together in consideration of the planning of this site. It’s by the water, which is magic. This plan will not just be for this particular site or the adjacent site. This will be part of Georgetown city and county. Every citizen who lives here or visits here will feel connected.”

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