Local leaders all agree that recent reports on Aiken’s lack of growth points to several issues that need to be addressed.
The information came in a benchmark study that was conducted by USC Aiken business professors Clifton Jones and Sanela Porca and was presented to the Aiken Chamber Board of Directors on May 15. In summary, the study concluded that the city is approaching zero growth and the county is approaching negative growth.
The chamber board features several leaders that represent various community aspects, including education, local and state government, real estate and other fields. Professionals from these fields have all given their perspective on the growth rate affects them and what can be done to improve it.
The study states the first place to start improving growth is to improve education.
“Given the long-standing causal relationship between educational attainment and income levels, any efforts to increase educational attainment levels in Aiken County would likely reap good rewards,” Jones and Porca wrote.
Elizabeth Everett, the superintendent of Aiken County Public Schools, said the school system has embraced that fact by implementing several programs to assist the learning process.
Those initiatives, she said, have elevated the graduation rate to 80 percent in 2013-2014 – an increase from the 70 percent rate from the 2009-2010 school year.
While the learning process is improving, the challenge, she said, is adding to the attractiveness of the schools.
“While some of our schools and classrooms offer up-to-date learning environments, others need serious remodeling and rebuilding,” Everett said. “Our legislators are working hard to give the citizens of Aiken County another avenue to support building and refurbishing our public schools.”
The study also notes that getting students to the next level of attaining an associates or bachelor’s degree would also improve City and County growth.
Numbers show that from 2008-2012, about 43 percent of the Aiken’s residents had a bachelor’s degree while only 23.9 percent of county residents had one.
Deidre Martin, USC Aiken vice chancellor, said it’s easy to be satisfied with the way things are when you love your community; however, the study does call for changes in education.
“I believe the findings in this report are a call to action, and a reason to enter an important conversation, as a community, about the future direction of a place we all love and call home,” Martin said. “A more well educated community is a more progressive community, which raises the quality of life for everyone.”
Employment and Business scope
The unemployment rate for the state, county and city have all been successfully dropping since 2009. Specifically, the rate for the County was 7.5 percent in 2013 compared to 9.4 percent in 2009. Likewise, the rate was 7.2 percent for the City, down from 8.2 in 2009.
Still, there are concerns about job creation and retention, said Theresa Swafford from Manpower.
“The Regional Economic Benchmarking Report is a sobering look at what the future of Aiken could look like if we don’t act now,” she said.
Steve Wilson, the vice president of branches for SRP Federal Credit Union, said the company has to pay attention to employment and growth.
A former chair of the board of directors, Wilson said a lack of growth could impact the individual branches of SRP even though the company has strong support.
“If the trend continues of average income dropping, we will feel that in time, because people’s borrowing will reduce, the amount in their accounts will reduce and, if jobs are lost, we’ll have to devote more of our time to loan collection,” he said.
Sally Brodie from Real Estate One said the message is simple: if the community isn’t growing, then there’s no economic demand.
She added that the business scope in Aiken suffers in part because of a lack of initiative from the City.
“Our government, and especially the City government, builds their budget around growth, but it seems like they do everything to stop it with their regulations” she said.
She added, “Lack of growth has been going on for four to five years and, all of a sudden, this particular study has gotten to more people than ever before.”
Local and state government
The benchmark study concluded that other ways to make Aiken more attractive include providing more public gathering places and residential options downtown and improving accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists throughout the area with new trails and pathways.
City Manager Richard Pearce said the City has a strategic plan that talks about many areas for City involvement.
“We will be pursuing more conversations in the coming months about how to best spend our Capital Project Sales Tax revenue for new and improved City facilities that will add to our quality of life and bring people here,” Pearce said. “Responsible, sustainable growth is crucial for a successful city to progress well.”
County Administrator Clay Killian said the study verified some things the County had already suspected and drew attention to.
“Clearly, the slower growth is concerning because it could signal a decline in revenues to provide needed services to our citizens,” he added. “We continue to work with the Economic Development Partnership to bring new businesses to the area.”
Finally, S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said the study highlights several areas that leaders are already working on, including making the city attractive to economic investment and expansion, new missions for the Savannah River Site and improving infrastructure on schools and roads.
“By having both a plan and a vision for what needs to be done, we can address the benchmark study issues for the long term benefit of our community, region, and state,” Young said.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga.
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