Region-wide cooperation may be the way of the future in area economic development business. And McDuffie County could benefit from the idea.
Columbia County Commissioners reached an informal agreement in November to cut ties with Augusta and pursue their own regional development authority and tourism director position after waiting two years for Richmond County to go along with such an idea.
Bill Coleman, Columbia County Development Authority chairman, said the plan now is to seek out McDuffie and Lincoln counties for a possible partnership. If Richmond County doesn't join in, he said, the partnership will go on without them.
McDuffie County officials were cautiously optimistic about the possibility. Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said no one has been contacted by Columbia County yet, but once the courtship begins, the proper authorities would study the pros and cons of a possible partnership.
"If they want to partner with us, I'm just going to be perfectly honest; I haven't studied it enough to know," Chairman Newton said. "I know that Columbia County with their financial strength could be a help."
Other McDuffie officials expressed interest in possible cooperation with surrounding counties.
"I think it's a good idea to explore regional alliances," said Forward McDuffie Director Don Powers. "I do know that we would be blind to ignore this 100,000 population county next door, and if we start talking about those kinds of things, I think it will be good for everybody involved."
The opposite side of the coin, according to Chairman Newton is the possibility of the partnership affecting state-funded economic development money.
McDuffie is a Tier One county, meaning it is eligible for the maximum amount of state dollars. Columbia County is classified as Tier Four, meaning it can only acquire the smallest amount of economic development funding from the state.
"There are several things at the state level, several programs, several pots of money that we can get our hands in that Columbia County as a Tier Four can't," Chairman Newton said, adding that further study would need to be done on the issue.
Mr. Powers said that a partnership would have to be structured so that McDuffie wouldn't lose any benefits from its current status but also gain from the connection to a more populated, more developed county.
"A partnership can take many different shapes," he said.
The idea for the regional partnership came at a planning session last month. Columbia County officials had hoped to work with Richmond and Burke counties in a development authority that would promote the entire region for business growth, but they decided it was time to move on.
"Basically, we agreed that we should pursue our own development authority because of Richmond County not wanting to be a part of the regional partnership," Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said.
Chairman Cross said other counties in addition to McDuffie and Lincoln could also be considered for the group. Warren and Burke made that list even though some officials expressed concern that outlying counties might be piggybacking on Columbia County's strength.
Meeting with Richmond County's development authority, Columbia County commissioners agreed they should meet Dec. 15 with their Augusta and Burke County counterparts to hash out their differences.
Most Columbia County commissioners and development authority members agreed that having a regional authority with Richmond County involvement would be beneficial.