By Paul Gable
In the wake of county council’s reconsideration of incentives and reduced rent to AvCraft at Tuesday night’s regular meeting of council, Brad Lofton, chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, told the Myrtle Beach Sun News other companies would be watching the treatment of AvCraft.
According to the Sun News story, Lofton said businesses that consider setting up shop in Horry County will undoubtedly research the area and see how it treats existing industry. In addition, Lofton said other prospects that MBREDC is talking to are monitoring the AvCraft situation and awaiting the outcome.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it seemed appropriate to research Lofton’s past in other locations to determine how he performed.
In October 2004, just after being hired as President and CEO of the Effingham (GA) County Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority, Lofton was listed as one of the best and brightest young Georgians by Business Trend Magazine.
By June 13, 2006, Lofton was gone from the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority. Lofton told the Savannah Morning News that authority lawyer Mickey Kicklighter came to Lofton’s office and told him to resign immediately or be fired.
Lofton also said he had never talked to the board about this move. Kicklighter waited for Lofton to remove his personal items and escorted him off the property.
According to the Morning News article, Lofton’s firing ended a tumultuous year during which the development authority threatened eminent domain before purchasing 2,700 acres of land from International Paper for $40 million of public money; took part in a controversial rezoning in southwest Effingham and went to court to determine whether it could be exempted from county building regulations.
Two weeks after his firing, board members of the IDA took out an ad in the newspaper in which they alleged Lofton promised more than $5.5 million in “gifts” to potential development prospects without board approval.
Lofton responded that he took no action without approval of the board and the gifts referred to an offer of land to a prospect.
According to a 2010 article, the land was still undeveloped and the taxpayers were paying off the $40 million public money secured debt.
Lofton moved to Valdosta Lowndes County Industrial Authority as the agency’s director in August 2006. During his tenure at VLCIA, Lofton got the city and county to add 1 mill of tax dedicated for funding the authority. The county bonded $15 million of that dedicated funding to purchase 577 acres of land that Lofton attempted to use to lure a biomass incinerator plant to Valdosta.
The biomass project encountered serious local opposition, including a charge of economic discrimination since the incinerator would have been located in the immediate vicinity of a black neighborhood. The biomass project failed to come to fruition and according to local residents, the land sits empty while the bonds are being paid off with public tax dollars.
When Lofton was vetted by a local selection committee, nothing came up to Lofton’s detriment, according to one local leader who spoke on conditions of anonymity. The official said they couldn’t recall any mention of the $5.5 million in gifts or the public advertisement placed by the Effingham IDA board.
MBREDC board chairman Doug Wendel was reported to have told selection committee members that the biomass project had also had the support of many environmental groups and Lofton had handled the situation well.
However, Leigh Touchton, four term president of the Valdosta NAACP branch, said Lofton claimed that environmental groups endorsed the biomass plant, but that those groups had written letters to the investment authority board “disabusing Brad’s statements.”
“Brad Lofton only listens to the opinions of industry,” said Touchton. “He does not do due diligence on projects. He is one of the least professional industrial development executives in the business.”
Touchton said the local community is also currently gearing up to fight the construction of a privately funded and operated prison. The prison project was initiated by Lofton, according to Touchton.
“The prison may become Brad Lofton’s legacy to Valdosta,” said Touchton.
Lofton had success in bringing some jobs to both Effingham and Valdosta, but his failures appear to have caused considerable public turmoil and public debt.
When Lofton was introduced to county council, chairman Tom Rice gave glowing reports of Lofton’s past accomplishments. However, council members say no mention of the Effingham firing was made and only passing mention of some opposition to the Valdosta biomass project.
Horry County Council has already dedicated 1 mill of property tax to funding MBREDC. Fortunately to date, no purchases of land have been funded with bonds.
The AvCraft project did not meet the county’s defined minimum standards to qualify for incentive funding. The next planned project announcement, currently identified as AF-2, also does not meet minimum standards and will require council approval.
The first two projects from the “new” EDC are local employers promising to expand if significant financial incentives of one sort or another are provided. That’s probably better than a prison, environmentally damaging biomass plant or $40 million land purchase with nothing to show for it.
Regardless of how the AvCraft decision is finalized, it would be a good idea for county council to pay close attention to the details of proposed economic development projects and to remain the final arbiter on their approval. This is especially true of projects where public funds are used as incentives.