CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the mid-1990s, this Atlantic Coast city was dealt a harsh blow when Congress decided to close Charleston Naval Base, which employed tens of thousands of civilian workers.
“Business and political leaders found themselves scrambling,” David Ginn, president and CEO of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, told 60 members of Lafayette-based One Acadiana on Monday.
At the time, Charleston’s long-running concept of economic development was sitting back while the state’s congressional delegation in Washington brought home ship-building contracts.
The news of the naval base closure came as a shock. “I mean, overnight,” Ginn said. “Fear became a very powerful motivator.”
The economic shock, however, launched the Charleston region on a 20-year spree of success that includes luring a Boeing 787 Dreamliner assembly plant and Mercedes-Benz and Volvo vehicle assembly plants.
The One Acadiana members who flew out of Lafayette Regional Airport before the sun rose Monday numbered bankers and other business executives, economic development officials, government office holders and leaders of nonprofit agencies.
They made the trip, dubbed a Leadership Exchange, to get a feel for how Charleston has improved job numbers, increased access to health care, lured more venture capital to the region, increased the number of start-up businesses and enhanced residents’ quality of life.
On Monday, the trip’s first session featured current and past leaders of the two organizations credited with the successes in South Carolina: the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
“You’re going to hear from people who have gotten things done despite the obstacles,” said Joe Zanco, chairman of the One Acadiana board and chief financial officer for Home Bank.
Lonnie Carter, former head of the regional alliance, told the Acadiana group that like other places, Charleston officials then and now encountered disagreement among business leaders and elected officials in what to plan and how to carry out those plans.
In an effort to keep disagreements among government and business officials to a minimum, the chamber created a director of stakeholder relations who keeps government informed, said Carter, who now is president and CEO of South Carolina utility Santee Cooper.
Mike Tarantino, who heads the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation, asked how Charleston officials dealt with people in their region who do not buy into the regional approach.
“You’re never going to have everybody on board,” said Bryan Derreberry, who leads the Charleston chamber. “It’s just not going to happen.”
One Acadiana has a day full of educational sessions on Tuesday, and also will hear from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who is completing his 10th term in office.
Riley is lauded for much of the region’s economic success.
The last session is Wednesday, when One Acadiana officials Sue Soileau Brignac, Robert Eddy, Lenny Lemoine and the group’s president and CEO, Jason El Koubi, conduct a debriefing.
Formerly the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, One Acadiana has adopted a wide approach to developing its region, which now encompasses nine south Louisiana parishes: Evangeline, Jefferson Davis, Acadia, St. Landry, Vermilion, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Mary and St. Martin.