Horry County Council members remain divided over whether to pay Coastal Carolina University nearly $40,000 for an economic analysis of IMAGINE 2040, the county’s proposed 20-year plan for managing growth and development.
Some council members contend a business professor’s research would provide valuable information while others say the price tag is too high for advice on a plan that should have already been approved.
“We don’t need to spend that kind of money on this project,” Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said, pointing out that the process for developing IMAGINE 2040 included a special committee, surveys, public meetings and many hours of staff research. “I’m opposed to it. If some of the council members are adamant about it, we can talk about it.”
The county is required to update its comprehensive plan every 10 years. An IMAGINE 2040 committee began meeting in January 2018, prepared a plan, and then presented it to council, though council members have not approved it yet. The plan looks at the area’s surging growth — an additional 275,000 people are expected to be living in the county by 2040 — and strategies for managing that influx of residents.
Weeks ago, Gardner announced at a council meeting that Coastal would be assisting the county with IMAGINE 2040. However, he said this week that he was initially confused about what the university’s role would be. Gardner said he was told Coastal was already doing research relevant to the plan and would not charge the county for providing its expertise.
“That’s not what it is at all,” he said of the $39,890 proposal. “I don’t know how it came about, but what did come about was basically a projected bill.”
The four-page proposal, which was obtained by myhorrynews.com, was sent to county leaders on Oct. 24 by Rob Salvino, a CCU business professor and director of the university’s Grant Center for Real Estate and Economics.
The document describes Salvino as the primary researcher on the project, which if approved would “provide an objective economic evaluation of specific aspects of Horry County’s Imagine 2040 Comprehensive Plan draft relating directly or indirectly to land use and development.” A final report of the economist's findings would be provided within 60 days of a contract being signed.
The proposal states that the research would look at the impact of the plan on the area’s economy.
“The study shall estimate the economic fiscal benefits and costs of suggested land use changes compared with the 2025 Plan,” the document states. “It shall evaluate the economic impact of flooding episodes on the housing market, property tax base, and fiscal capacity relating to the same.”
As part of this research, Salvino would review budgeting records, property tax and assessment data, flood maps, and information about homes damaged by flooding, according to the proposal.
A key part of Salvino’s research would be studying the fiscal impact of the plan’s proposed changes for scenic and conservation land and how the difference between the 2040 plan and the 2025 plan would impact property taxes, developer fees and other revenues. It would also look at the housing vulnerable to flood damage and zoning practices in other coastal regions.
Salvino said he was initially contacted about the project by Eddie Dyer, Coastal’s former chief operating officer who retired from CCU in 2015.
Salvino said the county had reached out to Dyer with a request for a study. So the economist met with David Schwerd, the county’s director of planning and zoning, and county administrator Steve Gosnell to discuss their interest.
Salvino stressed that the time constraints on the project would limit the scope of any research he could provide.
“Everybody understands that the 2040 plan is overdue by about a year or so,” he said. “We were very sensitive to the need to have this done sooner rather than later.”
One misconception Salvino said some people have about his proposed research for IMAGINE 2040 is that it is linked with the university’s Institute for Principled Development, a fledging center focused on managing growth that is expected to launch in 2020. The institute has received money from the development industry and critics worry those financial backers will influence the institute’s findings.
“It certainly was not [tied to developers’ funding or the institute],” Salvino said of CCU’s proposal for the county. “In fact, one of the reasons they (the county) might not to approve it is because we said, ‘We can do it, but it’s going to cost money.’”
He said the price tag stems in part from the tight timeframe. Coastal’s research would require finding other professors with specific expertise to help with the research.
Salvino also noted that the county wasn’t interested in a flood resiliency plan because county officials had already hired another consultant to work on such a document (Salvino said he and Paul Gayes, the executive director of CCU’s Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies, submitted a proposal to provide flood resiliency research earlier in the year, but the county didn’t accept their offer).
“They were clear: they don’t want us to address that aspect,” he said. “I would like to address some of the issues regarding flooding that are in my report.”
Specifically, Salvino said his research could look at homes that had flooded repeatedly and the demographics of flood victims.
“There’s a lot that, as an economist, I would like to see,” he said. “Are there patterns there?”
Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus said he would like Salvino to conduct the research, which he said may uncover financial implications county officials have not considered.
“It makes sense to me that if you want an objective, fact-based report, that the county fund it,” he said, noting that the proposal was created at the county’s request. “Everybody’s saying … ‘We’ve covered every base.’ Well no, you haven’t. The trouble is, I don’t know where the bases are. Do we not go out for reports and analysis on other projects?”
Critics of the CCU proposal say the research is unnecessary. Amid concerns about climate change and rising sea levels, they would rather see the county look at ways to further limit development in sensitive areas.
“Neither the proposal or any issues within are the issue at hand,” said Erin Pate, North Coast director for the Coastal Conservation League, an environmental advocacy group that has sparred with the county over infrastructure and development projects. “The fact is that the center represents economic development interests and doesn’t have the expertise or institutional objectivity to be reviewing the county’s Imagine 2040.”
Loftus, who worked for years in Coastal’s business school, said concerns about the university’s objectivity are unfounded.
“I know for a fact that there is no influence on them other than academic,” he said.
Loftus noted that some organizations have paid for CCU research that was never published.
“Because it didn’t say what they wanted it to say,” he said.
Council members plan to discuss Salvino’s proposal during a Thursday workshop on IMAGINE 2040. The workshop begins at 2 p.m.