County sees GIS system providing competitive edge in attracting industry
"It is by far one of the best tools that we have in our toolbox to do our job."
Orangeburg County Development Commission Executive Director Hal Johnson glows with pride when talking about the county's Geographic Information System and its role in the county's economic development building tool chest. GIS is an organized collection of computer hardware, software, geographic data and personnel designed to capture, store, update, manipulate, analyze and finally display all forms of geographically referenced information. The information obtained can prove to be a proverbial "drawing card" for a prospective industry, Johnson said."It is a phenomenal tool," Johnson said. "It allows us the ability, unlike most of the other counties in the state, to go online and immediately understand how big a site is, what its parameters are. We can look at it and we can tell whether or not it will work (for future building)."
With the GIS, a potential industrial employer can present certain criteria to the OCDC, and through a search on the GIS, the regions or areas meeting the criteria are displayed for the inquiring industry. By adding more layers of data, GIS can show the industrial prospect even more information, such as traveling distance to airports, railroads, interstate highways, jobs tax credits and the size of the labor pool with a certain radius or even a certain number of minutes driving time. Johnson said that while most economic development agencies have GIS access in some for or another, for a county of its size, Orangeburg's system is more advanced and can keep up with the state's proverbial Joneses along the likes of Greenville, Charleston, Dorchester and Richland counties. He credited GIS as in some way contributing to the county's successful attraction and eventual location of companies such as Allied Air and Dana Corp. "It is part of the whole package," Johnson said. "What GIS gives for us is a package that most other communities don't have. It makes us stand out in a more positive note."
Any advantage is crucial with the county's unemployment rate rose 2.2 percent in the month of June, the largest spike in the state for the month. The county has traditionally ranked among the highest in the state in job futility. In light of this, Johnson noted that while the GIS is a proactive and technologically advanced tool, there is still room for more improvement.
"The county and economic development agency has ongoing communication on what we can do next," he said. "Of course, it all takes money." Preliminary discussions between the county and the agency have revolved around making the system easily accessible for the real-time presentation of sites in the field and possibly placing pre-programmed scaled boxes that would help a prospective industry see to scale how a building will look on a particular site.
"In economic development, when a company comes to visit us, they are not coming to visit us to keep us on the list but are coming to eliminate us," Johnson said. "We are losing the battle every day until they tell us that we are the site they are coming to, and we have to look at it that way." In addition, GIS is a user-friendly tool, also allowing perspective industries to access the desired information.
"We have had people come in ... get them online and while we are talking to them on the telephone, we can show them an aerial photograph of the site," he said. Various county administrative offices consistently tout the GIS as "wonderful" and a "blessing" to county operations in all sectors. Currently, the county's GIS department employs five and functions on an $88,000 budget, with about $20,000 of the budget spent on hardware upgrades. The system was introduced into the county about 10 years ago as a mapping function for the county's tax assessors office and has since expanded.
"GIS really forms the backbone of all property-related functions in the county, including economic development applications," Orangeburg County Administrator Bill Clark said. "We use it every day in every land-based department in the county. It is used by private attorneys, real estate and foresters - you name it."
Clark praised the scope of the system (which is available on the Internet 24/7) as a "tremendous bargain" for the tax dollar it requires.
"We are really at the forefront of other counties," he said.