July 8, 2006

City to Keep Key Staffer

Kyle Stock  /  The Post and Courier

Charleston Digital Corridor creator can do private consulting on side

The city of Charleston made a successful bid Friday to keep Ernest Andrade, one of its top economic development officials and architect of the Digital Corridor initiative, months after he submitted his resignation.

Mayor Joe Riley said Andrade, 42, will remain a full-time city employee, drawing the same level of pay, and will be allowed to do private consulting on the side. The city will promote and give more responsibilities to Digital Corridor development coordinator Kimberly Demetriades and add an administrative worker for the office.

"Ernest is a private-sector person instinctively, which is why he's so great," Riley said. "We've always ... known that he would eventually go into the private sector. But since Friday, Ernest has thought about the future and we've had a chance to talk about our mutual goals."

Andrade, who has worked for the city 18 years, tendered his resignation in April. He was planning to sell his economic-development strategies across the country via Andrade Economics, a consulting firm that he incorporated in February. Under the verbal agreement brokered this week, the city will allow him to build that business on his own time.

"In my opinion, it's all good," Andrade said. "(The mayor) basically said, 'If we allow you to do these things, would you consider staying on?' "

The mayor said a written contract will keep Andrade's consulting efforts from competing with or compromising his city initiatives. "That will be good for him, good for the region and a source of pride, because he'll be talking about what we've done here," Riley said.

Andrade is known for his pragmatic approach to fertilizing Charleston's tech landscape. He didn't wine and dine executives or commission elaborate studies; instead, he lined up parking, tracked open office space and opened his Rolodex to local and newly arrived entrepreneurs.

Chris Miller, executive director of Savannah's Creative Coast economic-development organization, said Andrade's approach was ahead of its time. Miller's nonprofit took a number of cues from the Digital Corridor initiative when it launched in 2003.

Since its inception, the corridor has grown from 18 to 78 member companies. The initiative's major accomplishments include setting up an online "talent portal" connecting local companies to job seekers and building a "touchdown space" where a small startup or relocating business can work until it secures office space. The Digital Corridor was also the driving force behind the city's free wireless Internet, which has been spreading slowly across the peninsula since March.

"What we've created here is very unique," Riley said. "I don't know if it exists anywhere else in the country - certainly not in any cities this size."

Andrade said the initiative was "painfully underfunded" since its inception, but he pointed out that tight finances helped his organization run efficiently. The corridor budget was $142,000 last year, a sum that included the salaries of Andrade and Demetriades.