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Stories of people and their businesses thriving in Beaufort County, South Carolina.

Critical for Growth – Power and Water!

by | Feb 13, 2024

Why would a company choose to start a new business or grow an existing one in Beaufort County? For several reasons: low operation costs, a business-friendly environment, access to domestic and international markets, a highly skilled workforce and a solid power and water infrastructure. Two members of the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation board represent the two major entities that make the county ready for investment: Ashley Feaster, Community Affairs and Economic Development Manager with the Palmetto Electric Cooperative and Verna Arnette, General Manager of the Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority. We recently talked with Ashley and Verna about the importance of having a reliable power and water supply, which are fundamental for the operation of business and industry. They enable manufacturing processes, support commercial activities, and promote economic growth.

Ashley Feaster – BCEDC, Chairman of the Board
Palmetto Electric Cooperative

Ashley Feaster grew up on the gulf coast of Florida and attended University of Florida. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and then received a master’s degree at George Washington University in Washington DC in political management and public policy. For six years, she worked for the National Association of Home Builders assisting with state and local governmental affairs, running their grassroots efforts while traveling all over the country. Through this work, she helped home builders’ associations and their members process the growing political climate and while helping communities and state legislatures understand that economic development is important for the future growth of their region. In 2006, she moved to Hilton Head Island to become CEO of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association and in 2015 accepted her current position with the Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Palmetto Electric Cooperative

The Palmetto Electric Cooperative is a not-for-profit electric distribution utility that is owned by the members it serves. It was formed in 1940 by enterprising rural residents in response to the refusal by investor-owned utilities to serve rural areas. Within two years, the co-op delivered electricity to rural Hampton County and, shortly thereafter, to rural Jasper County. In 1950, lines to Hilton Head Island were electrified, setting the stage for the Island’s rapid growth.

Over the years, Palmetto Electric has purchased electricity from several sources to meet the growing needs of its members. In 1949, it began buying electricity generated by Santee Cooper from Central Electric Power Cooperative. Central, which today represents 20 electric cooperatives from Oconee County to the coast, purchases electricity at reasonable rates for its member cooperatives. For more than 80 years, the co-op has been meeting the needs of its members by implementing new technology and developing consumer-oriented programs. Today, the cooperative offers several innovative programs that reduce rates, simplify billing, enhance the safety and convenience of electricity, and fund community services to over 75,000 customers.

“One of our core values is based on our commitment to community and that is where economic development comes into play,” said Ashley. “When a business or major industry comes into this area or is looking to expand, it’s our commitment to make sure that they have the electric and the power to do so. We work with the Southern Carolina Alliance and other partners, such as our municipalities and county governments, to make sure that the electric infrastructure required by companies coming into our territory or hoping to expand is in place or is being constructed to meet their operational needs and ultimate success.”

Palmetto Electric is also part of the South Carolina Power Team, a community development and preparedness initiative in the service territory of the 20 electric cooperatives that collaborate to create competitive industrial sites, parks and buildings that are market ready. “In addition to the incentives offered through our collaboration with the SC Power Team, Palmetto Electric Cooperative is also able to grant $600,000 a year in utility tax credits under the South Carolina Rural Development Act, to municipal and county projects to support infrastructure development, land purchases, site preparation and development,” she said.

Role with BCEDC

As chairman of the BCEDC, Ashley has a pulse on what is going on in the region with regards to economic development and making sure Palmetto Electric operations team has what it needs to do to be prepared. “On the power side, we’re prepared! We meet regularly with each municipality and county to make sure that everything that they need and they see coming, we are able to provide. We build relationships and collaborate with our other utility partners to ensure that we’re all on the same page so that business and industry can thrive here,” she said.

Verna Arnette – BCEDC, Board Member
Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority

“When I was in high school, I had a couple of awesome teachers who really encouraged me to take math and science courses. I was particularly excited about my geometry, algebra, and calculus classes and found that I was good at math. Because of that early inspiration, I became an engineer,” said Verna Arnette. A native of Ohio, Verna went on to receive her undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University and a graduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Cincinnati. After working for 13 years with various municipalities in the private sector on water and wastewater projects, she was drawn to public service, working for Cincinnati Water Works for 22 years. “I started out working at the water treatment plants, moved to superintendent of water supply and treatment and then went on to the position of deputy director over engineering, water treatment, water quality, water distribution, and storm water management,” she said.

Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority

In May 2023, Verna moved to the Lowcountry to lead the Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority as its General Manager. The BJWSA provides retail water and sewer services to portions of Beaufort and Jasper counties. It also sells water on a wholesale basis to other communities, such as the Hilton Head Public Service District. Its mission is to provide quality water and wastewater services to current and future customers in the Lowcountry, and its vision is to be a leading water and wastewater provider recognized by their customers for reliable service and dedication to their employees, community and the environment.

According to Verna, “The challenges of providing water and wastewater services are different based on your location. In Ohio, we had to worry about freezing pipes. Here, that’s not an issue. It is very flat here, so we have to pump a lot more, as opposed to Cincinnati, where wastewater could be collected by gravity. There’s a need for more pump stations in this area. Also, the Lowcountry is much more spread out as opposed to where I came from; however, the Lowcountry is experiencing tremendous growth and we as a public utility must be prepared for that development in both the residential and industrial sectors.”

Role with BCEDC

The Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority works with the BCEDC and other agencies, whether they’re governmental or economic development organizations, to understand the upcoming needs of current and future business, which helps direct its capital program and planning efforts. “The big lynch pin in all of this is our treatment plant capacity, so we are currently expanding our water plant capacity at one of our plants and we have plans for wastewater plant expansion as well. With certain companies and businesses, the infrastructure needs are greater, there is need for more water, more sewer. For example, a hospital or food processing plant would have more water and sewer needs as opposed to a warehouse or a storage facility,” said Verna.

Verna believes BJWSA plays a major role to the vitality of the area by providing safe water to drink and the collection and treatment of wastewater. “I think many people don’t realize how much the economy depends on our services. It is absolutely essential that all of the public services work together to preserve and protect the precious resources we have in this beautiful place,” she said.

Investment in power and water infrastructure can trigger broader infrastructure development. Roads, transportation networks, and communication systems often improve alongside power and water supply, further stimulating economic growth. Power and water are foundational to economic development by fostering a conducive environment for businesses, employment, agriculture, and infrastructure growth. They are critical components of the economic ecosystem and significantly impact the prosperity of an area. The BCEDC is fortunate to have the active participation from its partners who deliver critical infrastructure!