By Edward Thomas
Companies from around the world are moving to Beaufort County and feeling welcome in large part due to the enterprising and resourceful leadership of John O’Toole, Director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation.
The past 2 ½ years since COVID have been especially bountiful for O’Toole, who was selected in November 2017 to assume the role of heading up the county’s economic development program, and his senior project manager, Charlie Stone, as they have shepherded a growing list of prospects who are enthusiastic about the business climate in Beaufort County.
The BCEDC works closely with the South Carolina Department of Commerce and the Southern Carolina Alliance to market Beaufort County. Even during the COVID years, their collaborative approach has led to impressive results in filling the pipeline with prospects.
Over the years there has been $330 million in capital investment, more than 60 new projects, and nearly 1,300 new jobs created and retained. There has also been $15.9 million in incentives and site development grants.
“Our promise to our current residents is to identify businesses that will diversify and improve our local economy but do no harm to our environment,” says O’Toole. “We pursue businesses that are economic driving-type companies, such as light manufacturing entities, suppliers for hi-tech aviation and aerospace industries, back-of-office type operations, and green businesses or even headquarters.”
O’Toole notes that for most of the past half century Beaufort County has been dominated by hospitality, tourism, and retirement-related businesses — like medical facilities and home builders — south of the Broad River, and military/defense installations on the north.
He explains that his mandate has been to identify and attract diversity and focus on companies that can help lift the average wage expectations for young people coming out of school so they will want to establish a long-term future locally.
The BCEDC’s programs extend beyond local borders. Recently O’Toole and Stone participated in the Select USA Investment Summit, a prominent trade show organized by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This event connects companies from across the globe with U.S. markets. It attracts foreign investments, which has been a South Carolina priority.
BCEDC works closely with the South Carolina Department of Commerce and Southern Carolina Alliance to market the Lowcountry Region for global opportunities.
While working with a delegation at the Paris Air Show, O’Toole happened to meet William Fugate, a Business Development Manager for SkyDrive, a Japanese company that was interested in entering the U.S. market with new technology for “flying cars.”
O’Toole briefed Fugate on what this area of South Carolina could offer, and after exploring several other destinations in the United States, Sky Drive felt Beaufort County was a good fit.
The location made sense because of several factors including climate, proximity to small city centers, a robust manufacturing supply chain nearby, and the fact that our state is already playing a significant role in both commercial and military aviation.
A team of Sky Drive officials visited the area, and Fugate reported to O’Toole that the Japanese visitors were “especially impressed with local Southern hospitality.”
In July, the Federal Aviation Administration certified for testing the first flying cars in the United States. These are fully electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles that are expected to be in full use within the next two or three years.
O’Toole is excited about the glamour of this new entry to the Beaufort County economy, but knows it’s important to keep key companies already located here from being snatched away.
One such “save” was keeping Kigre, Inc, a Hilton Head Island specialist in laser glass facility for the aerospace industry, on the island when it was purchased by L3Harris Technologies, an $18 billion global aerospace and defense innovator.
“It’s an environment where the right businesses can thrive,” O’Toole said of the county. “It’s why we picked our motto: “Good for your business. Good for your soul.”