Lou Kennedy admits her motives are partly selfish.
Kennedy, president and CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, oversaw the relocation of her company’s headquarters from Orlando to West Columbia earlier this year. Twenty-five key employees also made the move.
“In several of the cases, (employees’) spouses would go, ‘What’s in Columbia? What’s there for me to do? What jobs are out there for me?’ ” Kennedy said.
In an effort to provide answers, Kennedy joined Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd shareholder Bill Boyd to lead one of five Midlands Business Leadership Group committees tasked with finding ways to promote and increase the regional offerings that make Columbia capable of attracting and retaining top talent while offering a competitive quality of life.
“That was my own personal desire – to make it a better place to recruit,” said Kennedy, who led the Livability working group with Boyd.
After two years, 37 meetings and input from more than 100 community leaders, MBLG identified seven action recommendations to focus on in 2018. The organization, a coalition of more than 40 executives from the region’s largest employers, from banks to health care to construction and design firms, unveiled those goals Monday at the USC Alumni Center.
The projects focus on improving Richland County riverfront access, increasing connectivity between Richland and Lexington counties, encouraging entrepreneurship and integrating younger, more diverse voices into leadership positions.
“We always talk about creating jobs,” said Lee Bussell, chairman and CEO of marketing communications firm Chernoff Newman and co-chair of the MBLG initiative. “We always talk about growing the economy. But we don’t talk about what it means to make the place we already live in a very special place and a place that others are going to want to move to.”
The seven action areas were informed by data from the annual Midlands Regional Competitiveness reports compiled by economic development nonprofit EngenuitySC, the initiative’s project management team. Those reports compare economic competitiveness in the Columbia metropolitan statistical area to nine other Southeast regions, focusing on five indicators: talent; entrepreneurial/business environment; innovation; industry clusters; and livability. Each of the five MBLG groups concentrated on one of those areas.
The 2017 report will be available in January. The 2016 analysis found Columbia ranked ahead of Greenville and Charleston and tied with Raleigh in livability.
Kennedy believes not enough people know that – partly because the Midlands has been too modest in promoting itself.
“It is a great place,” Kennedy said. “I think the message has just got to be different.”
Kennedy and other MBLG leaders also stressed the need for collaboration, particularly among the chambers of commerce in Lexington and Richland counties, and emphasized a need for the Richland County side of the Congaree River to catch up to the development on the Lexington County side.
“I have lived on both sides, and I think there are great assets on both sides,” Kennedy said. “I do think the river is what brings us together. That’s a great place to start. The water brings us together, but yet we hardly celebrate it on one side.”
Much of the Richland County riverfront land, as well as some of the land on the opposite side, is privately owned by the Guignard family.
“We know that’s an issue, and we’re working on it,” Kennedy said. “We’re visiting with those owners and trying to figure out what they see for their vision.”
Bussell said research conducted by MBLG found that 87% of those surveyed thought the Columbia region was better today than five years ago. Delving into why, the group found that “they like development. They like to see the cranes,” Bussell said. “They like to see people on Main Street. They like to see more access to the river on both sides. … Our group said. ‘Let’s make sure we focus on things that will complete the waterfront.’ ”
Bussell said that if an issue is not among the seven priorities discussed Monday, that does not mean it isn’t on MBLG’s radar. The organization will continue to seek community input while convening on a quarterly basis to provide updates and answer questions during the next 12 months, he said.
“We hope what we’ve done is to create momentum for catalyzing some of this action and catalyzing some of this change,” Bussell said. “We hope other organizations take some of those things on and move them forward. This is not a limited effort.”
The seven action areas identified by MBLG are:
- Establish a formal collaboration with the property owners from Gervais Street to Catawba Street to address the design, funding, development and operation of a regional waterfront amenity along the Congaree River.
- Design and implement a solution for regional branding that includes funding, ownership, coordination, collaboration and regional buy-in.
- Evaluate and accelerate the mission, structure, role and funding model for economic development in Lexington and Richland counties
- Convene a new “Coordinating Council” to enhance regional collaboration, regional economic development, downtown development groups and others while leading the charge for greater integration of young leadership
- Support efforts of chambers of commerce in both Lexington and Richland counties to ensure greater collaboration between public entities and the business community
- Support the creation of a one-stop shop for resources available to entrepreneurs, with a goal of 80% completion by Sept. 30, 2018
- Identify an organization to take ownership of and design a plan for pedestrian connections along Assembly Street, including streetscaping and identifying funding sources
MBLG leaders acknowledged that past efforts to achieve similar goals have not gotten off the ground, but say the regional collaboration in this initiative increases its chances of success.
“It can’t work if we don’t try,” Kennedy said. “My theory is, if we just get in there and push, and cheer, and care, and cheer, and push a little more, perhaps it might actually fall into place.”