Secrecy is the enemy of trust, so let’s open the books a little wider when it comes to the county’s Project Blue. Friday’s editorial explains further:
Credit deserves to be given where credit’s due. And at least when it comes to the much-hyped Project Blue, that credit recently must go to some of the other news outlets in the area, which have done a yeoman’s job of digging into the background of the proposal to bring more than 1,000 call center jobs to our area.
Secrecy brings with it two close bedfellows: Suspicion and curiosity. While the need for secrecy in negotiating incentive agreements is, regrettably, sometimes necessary, the cat has already been yanked out of the bag on this one. We all now know the company involved is Covation LLC, that the Fortune 100 company they intend to work for is AT&T, that they hope to be located in Carolina Forest, and even who the incentives are coming from and how much. It’s time to stop referring to it as Project Blue and start discussing the issues involved in the open. Doing so would go a long way toward putting to rest worries of public dollars being appropriated in secret, without public input.
Revelations that the company’s chief operating officer not only presided over a similar project in Hickory, N.C., that failed in 2008, but more concerning, that he spent time in prison for tax evasion and continues to have struggles with the IRS, are throwing up red flags. It’s not hard to understand why the council opted at its Sept. 4 meeting to put off a final decision until a later date as they sort through the risks and concerns.
Without a contract yet in place from AT&T, county officials are voting on whether to commit $1.25 million up front to help the company pay for furniture and equipment, as well as borrow $8 million in contingency funds just in case the call center isn’t up and running within five years and they have an empty building that needs to be filled. That’s on top of the millions in tax breaks and incentives from other sources, such as the state Commerce Department, Santee Cooper, Horry Telephone Cooperative and Horry-Georgetown Technical College. Much of that help, such as the space HGTC agreed to provide for training, would come into play only if Covation’s plan materializes.
On the one hand, county leaders are incredibly lucky that this troubling information has come to light now, before any final decision has been made. It’s testament to the power of the media to act in the public interest and turn up otherwise hidden pertinent details that will inform their choices. And it’s to leaders’ credit and likely at least partly due to the size of the proposal that the council didn’t simply blindly rubber stamp this proposal, as some council members initially did with the incentives for the expansion of AvCraft last year. On the other hand, we don’t envy them their position. Council members face an incredibly tough decision in the coming weeks.
The prospect of 1,020 jobs for our area is not a possibility to turn down lightly. Local economic development officials continue to stand behind the project. A stint in prison does not automatically negate any good ideas a businessman might have later in life. And the incentive agreements also have some common sense safeguards in place, most notably a provision that any deal is contingent upon a completed contract with AT&T.
But that spotty record does make it much harder to put our trust – and our tax dollars – in the hands of a stranger making big promises. We imagine that economic development officials and county leaders are now doing a lot of talking behind the scenes, trying to get to know those involved more intimately, attempting to get a feeling for whether they can indeed put their faith in this company. If they aren’t, they should be.
Meanwhile, as the secrecy continues, the county’s rumor mills are running overtime, churning out accusations of profiteering, power plays and conflicts of interest day by day. If this project is indeed so important to our community, then the council, the economic development folks and the companies involved should throw open the curtains and let in some more sunshine to reassure residents that the project is on the up and up. Even if the state’s unfortunately lax open records laws don’t require disclosure of items such as the contractors and land owners involved or how they might be tied to others involved in the project, the public deserves to find out before, rather than after the deal is signed. Divulging such information and laying it out would do much to silence the slanderers, dispel any hint of improriety and reassure us all that this project deserves nothing but our full support.
It was smart of the council to delay their final vote this week. But we’re now getting down to crunch time, and the stakes are high. If the project incentives aren’t approved here soon, it grows less and less likely that it will happen at all. The companies involved won’t wait around forever as we bite our fingernails. County Council members soon must vote yea or nay for a final time on Project Blue incentives and they should base their decision on facts – preferably public facts – that suggest a viable outcome, going forward, for Horry County and its taxpayers.