Economic development: Walterboro style | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | October 20, 2017 5:00 pm
Last Updated: October 18, 2017 at 11:13 am
A new Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the Walmart shopping plaza and Cook Out and Starbucks on Bells Highway are the latest indicators that national companies are taking notice of Walterboro.
“The interest level and the location of national franchises locally shows that developers have us on their radar and that’s a good sign,” said Walterboro Deputy Administrator Hank Amundson.
Amundson, who has the city’s building permitting system and economic development in his job description, hints at more development announcements on the horizon. “You will see a lot more later.”
Amundson can call on his own recollections to put what is going on in perspective — earlier in the decade he served as the city’s economic development director.
“The world was different back then. There was not a lot of dirt moving anywhere,” Amundson said.
Just prior to Amundson working on Walterboro’s economic development the first time, the city had commissioned a study of its marketplace.
The city had wanted the study done to provide evidence to show developers that they should not use the traditional matrix in assessing Walterboro economic viability.
“Our market area did not fit the norm,” Amundson explained. “It is bigger than it appeared.”
The traditional matrix for determining a municipality’s market was based on the number of potential customers living within a specific radius of the community.
The study, as hoped, was able to demonstrate that Walterboro businesses drew customers from a wider geographical area.
Showing that, Amundson explained, was “based on grocery and pharmaceutical sales. That is really what quantifies who shops in your market and that showed us to have a 50,000-plus market.”
Even though the study was able to show Walterboro had a higher than expected customer base, Amundson said, it did not result in a significant increase in businesses setting up shop in the city.
At the time the national economy was struggling. “Back then, they were not building stores except in the A market,” Amundson explained. “We have maybe been a B or B-plus market. In tough times, they are only doing A.”
With the economy rebounding, commercial operations are back to exploring the possibility of expansion in areas like Walterboro.
Now, developers are viewing the potential of Walterboro in a different light, Amundson said. “When people have more money to spend, when unemployment dropped so drastically in our region, it changes.”
“Because the economy is better, in the last year or two,” Amundson said. “Walterboro has seen commercial growth. For a city our size to have 3-5 commercial developments a year is huge.”
“I’ve seen more interest in the last six months than I saw the last time I was here,” Amundson said.
A lot of that growth, he added, has been in the shopping center Walmart anchors: Fat Jack’s relocated to the plaza and IHOP and Verizon built new facilities.
Amundson said with the addition of a new Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Walmart plaza only has one developable site left.
When the plaza runs out of available space, he said, new commercial operations will have to find new locations close to the interstate.
“The interstate is our market,” Amundson said. “If the potential market was based solely on who lives here, the growth would not be happening.”
The market created by the interstates will bring a franchise. “It gives a local person a job, another option of what to do.” As more franchises locate here, they will bring a few more jobs, Amundson said.
“The beauty of Walterboro is we have the downtown, which is special and older, and have these two big draws (the interstate exchanges). Any reason they have to get off the interstate is good for us because we have an opportunity to draw them downtown,” Amundson said.
When travelers pull off the interstate, Amundson said, the city wants those tourists to say, “Wow, there’s more beyond this. Let’s take a two-mile ride downtown.”
The city’s I-95 Business Loop project, which is designed to pull motorists further into the city from the two interchanges, will hopefully help generate that “wow” factor.
Dealing with economic development in Walterboro, he said, means dealing with different sets of economic growth factors “Downtown growth is organic; interstate growth is formula-based,” Amundson explains.
Organic growth in the downtown area, he said, comes when “someone has an idea and takes a chance.”
That home-grown economic growth, Amundson said, “is why downtown is cool.”
When Amundson relocated to Walterboro, there was just one downtown restaurant. East Washington Street was predominately antique stores.
Reviving the downtown, he said, had been a natural progression. “Antiques stores were first, then we started to diversify with boutiques, clothing stores. Then you start to get some art options, then restaurants.
“Now we are at the next level, which is residential. That is really starting to gain steam because you have a 24-hour presence and activity.
“Do I wish everything happened faster? Heck yeah,” Amundson said.