Since its inception more than 10 years ago, the South Charleston Economic Council has focused on attracting new businesses and improving the city’s overall business environment.
City officials and local business owners agreed while there is more work to be done, it’s evident the economic council is positively impacting the business community and city overall.
South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens described the council as a causal setting that creates an open space for commerce and government to come together.
The council meets once a month and involves city officials, local business owners, area real estate agents and other community members. In total, 18 people contribute to the council.
“It’s important to hear their feedback,” Mullens said of the council members, particularly the business owners. “It gives us an idea of what we can do because our goal is to be as business-friendly as possible.”
Business owners Pat Burchett and Carol Belcher who both have storefronts on D Street, like what they see.
“The storefronts, sidewalks and street signs have all been improved,” Burchett said who has been on D Street for 20 years. “It does help.”
Mullens said one of the first projects the economic council directed since he became mayor was investing around $300,000 to improve the downtown commerce area. All the sidewalks were replaced. Benches were placed at each intersection along with flower beds. New decorative street signs were put in. A new stage was build near the Indian Mound for the city’s Summerfest. The older trees that had its roots poring out into the sidewalks creating hazards were also replaced with new trees.
Burchett said she loves that the city cares enough to invest in its appearance. She hasn’t had many problems with her store’s location other than customers complaining about a lack of public restrooms in the area.
Belcher runs a certified public accounting firm two store down from Burchett’s Celebrations store. She shares the space with her husband Jerry where his Window Fashions store has been for nearly 40 years.
Before moving to South Charleston, Belcher worked in downtown Charleston for 20 years. She decided to make the move for cheaper rent and free parking among other things.
“People like South Charleston because Charleston is a little hard to get a long with business wide,” Belcher said. “They seem to have an awful lot of hoops to jump through.”
She believes the economic council has done a lot for area businesses and remains attentive to their needs.
“When I have complaints I can walk two blocks down the street,” Belcher said. “They are always very accessible.”
Belcher said she and her husband are very happy and would not consider locating their businesses anywhere else. They hope more and more businesses continue to move into the area.
She also enjoys the aesthetic changes near her storefront.
“They’re not your typical street signs,” Belcher said of the economic council’s downtown street scape project. “They’re kind of old fashioned and I think South Charleston has a little bit of that - the slower pace, the small town America feel.”
A few miles away, off of Montrose Drive the economic council is tackling another project.
“It was a mess,” Mullens said of the site that once housed five apartment buildings and two small homes. “There were more than 90 some police calls up there in one year. It was just a bad situation that caused a real issue for the quality of life for those folks in that neighborhood.”
So the economic council led an urban renewal project on the corner of Treemont and Highland Avenues.
Mullens said they worked with the previous owner to buy the lot for $485,000. The council is using city employees to build four single-family homes on the lot. Three have already been sold. Two have occupants and one is currently under construction.
“The good thing for us using in-house labor is it makes the project a lot cheaper to do,” Mullens said. “The downside is it takes longer for us to do it compared to someone in the private sector that can give it their 100 percent attention.”
Mullens said it was a unique project for the city. He added the city has a talented and skilled public works labor force intentionally so the city can do projects in-house that no one would take up.
“It wasn’t like I was worried about someone saying, ‘well mayor, if you do it here, why not here and here?” Mullens said. “There’s really no other place like this or what it used to be.”
City Manager Carlton Lee said the project is turning out perfectly.
“We knew we needed to sell four houses to make this happen,” Lee said. “When all four houses are sold it will are work out — we won’t make any money but we made the neighborhood great and brought four new residents to the city.”
Mullens said the idea is to invest in the city and it will have a domino effect. Both projects were implemented in phases throughout several years.
He said it’s all a package.
“It’s our location. It’s our tax incentives. It’s our free parking. It’s our quality services. It’s our infrastructure,” Mullens said. “I think some of the simple things get overlooked by some folks.”
One of the “biggest hits” the city has had since Mullens took office was Gestamp locating at the vacant stamping plant. Mullens said negotiations didn’t go directly through the economic council but members from it were involved.
“We create tax incentives,” Mullens said. “That can not only be enjoyed by Gestamp but any future industry that comes to South Charleston.”
City council members passed an ordinance capping the business and occupation tax at $365,000 a year for companies doing business in the city for at least four years, employ at least 200 people and gross a minimum of $100 million in annual sales.
He added the city’s tax credits work and about 60 businesses have enjoyed a tax credit in the last five years.
“I’ve heard people criticize tax credits in the past and say there are no need for them and they don’t help attract business — that’s not the case here.”
The economic council helps city officials respond to business owners’ needs in a timely manner.
“The economic council has been a great tool for the city,” Lee said. “The street scape project completely changed downtown — even the whole mindset of the businesses changed.”
Moving forward, Lee said the Spring Hill area is one of the city’s biggest challenges. Lee’s childhood home was purchased by nearby Thomas Memorial Hospital.
“When the time comes, I think the economic council will shift its energy down in Spring Hill,” Lee said. “I think what we have to do is just like what we did downtown — it’s the infrastructure, the street scape and all that. That’s our part...Then we hope the businesses come.”
Reach Caitlin Cook
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