Acadiana leaders learn lessons from Charleston, S.C., on economic development trip _lowres

Jason El Koubi, right, president and CEO of One Acadiana, traveled to Charleston, South Carolina with about 60 members of One Acadiana, formerly the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, to get ideas for growth from economic development official there. Charleston has a 20-year string of successes in luring businesses, raising wages and improving access to health care.

A veteran technical college president told a group of Acadiana residents Tuesday that creating a vibrant regional economy involves acknowledging the deep-rooted problems of society that keep a hefty percentage of people in poverty and finding effective ways to address them.

“I’ve dedicated my life to working in a place that truly believes in opportunity for everyone,” said Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College that trains students for jobs in three South Carolina counties.

Thornley told 61 members of One Acadiana, a nine-parish regional economic agency based in Lafayette, that she discovered years ago the inequities in K-12 public education and started trying to do something about it.

She’s still fighting the fight, though now, after years of collaboration with the business community and installing ever-evolving programs, more South Carolina students are earning a living wage and are participating in the region’s good fortune.

Trident Technical College offers the two-year technical degrees where graduates are scooped up by the region’s manufacturing companies. But getting students prepared to even enter the science- and math-heavy studies has been a challenge that Charleston has tried to meet.

One way was to institute career academies across Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties — referred to as the Tri-County area — and to offer high school students college credits that go toward a degree.

Melissa Stowasser, director of High School Programs at Trident, said there also are 62 youth apprentice programs in the Tri-County area, which are formed with businesses that make a commitment of at least one year.

“These are industry-driven programs,” Stowasser said.

The Trident system also is in the last stages of raising money to build a $78 million Aeronautical Training Center to accommodate the Boeing 787 Dreamliner assembly plant that started operations in Charleston in 2011.

In another session Tuesday, Housing Authority of Charleston President and CEO Donald Cameron said the area’s poorer residents have struggled as Charleston property values rose in the last decades. He said the housing authority has initiated programs that brought rental prices down, including adding a few thousand homes to Charleston’s inventory.

The technical schools that seek to train workers, many of them poor, have a hard time getting those students because many of the Trident Technical College campuses are located in Charleston, where it’s too pricey to rent, Cameron said.

He said he had to call on the region’s successful business community to sit down with the region’s poor to get the process rolling that led to affordable homes.

“All of a sudden we had people at the table that don’t normally talk to each other,” Cameron said. “Once they started talking, they discovered some commonalities.”

Some of the affordable home developments benefited from the efforts of the South Carolina Community Loan Program, which is run by CEO Michelle Mapp, who has been at the helm for 10 years.

The loan program is a federally recognized community development financial institution, or CDFI, which loans money for risky developments such as grocery stores in financially distressed areas.

Mapp said the money her organization gives out are loans, not subsidies. The money is lent at below-market rates. She said CDFIs cannot be influenced or controlled by local government.

One Acadiana traveled to Charleston this week in a “Leadership Exchange” that sought answers to how Acadiana can implement the structural and mind-set changes that Charleston has made leading to its success.

Those changes, which started painfully in 1993 when the news broke that Congress would shutter the Charleston Naval Base shipyard, has led to 20 years of seeking better education and industries that pay better wages. Charleston now boasts an enhanced quality of life; better health care for more people; more investment money for startup businesses and out-of-the-box ideas; business clusters for manufacturing and computer businesses.

Recent lures include Mercedes-Benz and Volvo vehicle plants that have yet to be constructed, along with the $1.2 billion Google Data Center in Berkeley County.