April 17, 2006

Charleston a knowledge-based model

Sheila Watson  /  CRBJ

A casual chat during the holidays turned into a road trip to Charleston for four economic development officials from Pennsylvania looking for ways to nurture a knowledge-based economy in their area.

David Sciamanna, president of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce, said a conversation with Charleston businessman Tim Latsbaugh sparked his interest in some of the city's initiatives, particularly those of the Charleston Digital Corridor.

"Tim is originally from Chambersburg, so we had an opportunity to see him when he was here over the holidays," said Sciamanna. "He outlined some of the things that were occurring in the Charleston area and told us about some of the projects with Ernest (Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor), how the city had developed this digital corridor concept, and we thought it was intriguing."

Also along for the ride were Donald Krysakowski, senior e-business consultant with the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program at Penn State University; Mary Beth Hickenberry, executive director of the Greater Waynesboro Chamber of Commerce; and Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp. The area that comprises Waynesboro, Chambersburg and Franklin counties is similar to the tri-county area of Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

"Charleston is comparable to Chambersburg in size, so that makes it a perfect model for us to study," Ross said. "As Charleston is looking to expand and increase its number of knowledge-based companies and employees, we're engaged in similar efforts."

The two areas have other efforts in common. Like Charleston, Chambersburg was a target for the Base Realignment Committee. "In this round of BRAC, we're a net gainer," said Ross. "We were significantly realigned in 1995 and lost 3,000 workers. Going in this time, we felt that we were low-hanging fruit. As it turns out, with 9/11 and the war and so on, we were able to respond effectively and got a commander who was able to turn around production at the Army installation. It was a remarkable transformation, and it has re-emerged as the county's largest employer."

Part of the Chambersburg area that was realigned in 1995 was turned into a mixed-use industrial park where 45 businesses are located–-much like the redevelopment of the Navy base.

The visit to Charleston was "incredibly productive. It allowed for us to better understand the concepts and, to some extent, validate some of the things we're trying to do. Overall, we concluded that we're facing a lot of the same issues, and that's helpful," Ross said.

The group, here for two days, visited several companies on the peninsula and on Daniel Island, gaining a perspective on technology and what is needed for a community to enter the knowledge-based era. They also spent time with Andrade, discussing the mechanics of the corridor and its day-to-day operations. "Charleston has made tremendous inroads in both growing a knowledge-based economy and implementing technology that's needed to support it," said Krysakowski. "Sometimes it can be difficult to create an awareness of what you're doing and rally around the whole technology expansion. But Charleston seems to be doing it well."

Hickenberry noticed how effectively Charleston markets the city's charm, she said. "Our area has beautiful mountains, very picturesque. Coming here I realized that we just don't let people know that enough," she said.