Episode 14 Transcript: The Secret to Cultivating a Business-Friendly Community

Brett Fellows Eric DeMoura, I am excited to have you on today.

Eric DeMoura Thank you, Brett. It’s a pleasure for me to be with you.

Brett Fellows Well, to give a little preamble. So, everybody knows you are not a business owner, but I thought you’d be very unique to have a conversation with because you are the town administrator of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Which has gone from, forgive my numbers, but 50,000 to seven, nine, almost 90,000 people in the 17 years that I have been here.

Brett Fellows And so I really feel that you have a unique seat, if you will, behind the scenes. Literally where you see where businesses are and how they work and how they survive. So I thought you could add a lot of context to us business owners of how it relates to actually where we live and work.

Eric DeMoura Glad to do it. Happy to do it.

Brett Fellows Now, a town administrator. So I know you went to Clemson University. How in the world does one become a town administrator?

Eric DeMoura You know, I’ve always been interested in public policy. I’ve always been interested in government. And it’s something that I really pursued since I was young. I’ve been involved in government and even politics and elections, tagging along with my parents as they went, as they participated in local elections where I grew up. And so it’s always something that’s been on my mind. And that’s why when I first arrived at Clemson, my major was political science.

Brett Fellows Very cool. And how long have you been with the town of Mount Pleasant?

Eric DeMoura I arrived in 2003. And I come from serving as a deputy mayor in a city outside of Boston, about 30 miles. And so, and then I was the deputy, the Assistant Administrator under Mac Burdette here, who was a longtime administrator, quarter-century who served in this role, and was fortunate enough upon his retirement to get selected to carry on for him.

Brett Fellows That’s great. And so two stops? I mean, is that common for a town administrator to really just be in two different municipalities? Or are you unique in that regard?

Eric DeMoura It’s fairly uncommon. Before I came from Massachusetts, I was a county manager, which is a similar role, but for a county government in North Carolina. So I was there a few years, spent a few years up north, and then spent now 18 years here at the town of Mount Pleasant, I’ve been in this role as town administrator, which for those who don’t know, it’s essentially a city manager role. Although we’ve got 95,000 people, we still call ourselves a town. So that contributes to my title.

Eric DeMoura But typically, city managers are like football coaches. They stay in a community for three, four years. And then either the elected body decides it’s time for a change, or the manager decides it’s time for something new. So I’ve been in this role for 11 years as town administrator. So I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to have some stability and to raise my family here. I’m very grateful to the Mayor and Town Council for just giving me this opportunity.

[08:05] How Eric DeMoura and his team balance competing interests of Mount Pleasant business owners and residents to cultivate a thriving community.  

Brett Fellows That’s fantastic. And for context, Eric, can you say, from 30,000 feet, give us an overview of what Mount Pleasant looks like from a business community standpoint?

Eric DeMoura Sure. Well, it’s very vibrant. There’s no question about it. Mount Pleasant has over 8,000 businesses. And we really run the gamut. We have hospital type, life sciences, medical, hospitality sector is very strong. So we, really this community, as far as the businesses that make up this community, is very vibrant.

Eric DeMoura And it’s very complete in my mind in terms of offerings, and the spectrum of services and products that are produced here. You know, Brett, we really couldn’t do it, we couldn’t provide the services we do without the business. So it is critical that we do everything we can here at the government side of things, at the government level, to make sure that it remains viable, and that people are supported in running a business and investing in the community.

Eric DeMoura We try to do everything we can so that people can meet their aspirations when it comes to their business, and why they’ve opened a business, and what they’re trying to achieve. For us here in the town, I mentioned how critical business is to the financial health of the community. It takes a home value of almost a million dollars for it to pay as much or more in taxes as it receives. So it’s the business community that is footing the bill here in the town of Mount Pleasant, and they’re critical and very, very important to us.

Brett Fellows Yeah, I bet. And as you just noted, there’s 95,000 residents. And as I noted, it’s just been growing tremendously, obviously, in your tenure as town administrator. How does the town of Mount Pleasant, or how have you, I guess, continued to balance the growth of a business community in conjunction with a residential community? If that makes sense?

Eric DeMoura Sure. Well, you know, every business is important to us. There’s no question. But we do have to balance different needs and competing interests in the community. So, you know, we have 95,000 residents or so. Seventy people a day are moving, and we’re practically surrounded by water, which brings a break sometimes.

Eric DeMoura So many of the residents, especially longtime residents, who have made Mount Pleasant their home, that feel that constraint that almost being an island. You know, how much can you fit in a community and still maintain quality of life? And so, you know, the business aspect is very important.

Eric DeMoura And when it comes to good quality, well-paying jobs that allow our residents to stay in the community where they live, that’s certainly a target for us and a priority for us. Because it helps us in more ways than just helping to support vibrant businesses. It helps us with traffic issues and things like that. So, it’s important to us.

Brett Fellows What type, what percentage of revenue does business tax make up for the town of Mount Pleasant?

Eric DeMoura Oh, it’s, you know, it’s got to be two-thirds, or close it.

Brett Fellows Yeah.

Eric DeMoura So it’s absolutely critical. You know, I mentioned the industries before. Every business is important, everyone’s contributing. But some of the largest sectors and industries that we have, I did mention medical, hospitality, especially construction industry has been very strong in the community for a long time. It used to be, you know, larger neighborhoods, single-family residences. But that has moved more towards renovations, additions, even infill-type projects. So that’s how it shakes out.

[12:26] The two things Eric DeMoura believes small business owners deserve from their local government.

Brett Fellows Eric, with now, that growth, too, how about a small business owner? You know, if it’s gone from a somewhat sleepy town to almost a real city, have you seen the small business owner go out? Have you seen more come in? What does that look like over the years?

Eric DeMoura You know, I’ve really seen both. I’ve seen a lot of competition that I think has put pressure on small business owners. Competition from others in their industry. Mount Pleasant’s a desirable community, and there’s discretionary income here. And so for those looking to sell a service or a product, Mount Pleasant is pretty desirable to want to be.

Eric DeMoura And so, you know, there’s no question that many small business owners who have been here a long time face competition from others who may be more national type companies wanting to be here and compete. And that’s tough for us to choose sides sometimes. It’s tough for us to get involved in.

Eric DeMoura I think we really stick towards, and we can’t control that, and many would argue we shouldn’t control. Now, it’s private sector, it’s capitalism, it’s things like that. But there are things we can do on our end, and that is that we try to create an environment that is supportive of all businesses. And that allows them, you know, to meet their aspirations. And so we hope that helps. It probably doesn’t always help, but we try to make it so, you know, businesses probably. Not probably. I think they do deserve predictability and speed from their local government. And so we try to provide that. We work hard at providing that. So we try to work for what we can control as a local government. We try to provide a favorable environment.

Brett Fellows And if the business community makes up, say, two-thirds of the revenue, does that correspond to maybe your time? Do you spend two-thirds of your time overall dealing with business community issues?

Eric DeMoura No, I don’t. I do spend a considerable amount of time and try to help when I can. But most of the time it’s operational items that are for services, usually, that are towards residents. And if there are concerns from residents or citizens, usually there are more of those than there are concerns from business owners.

Eric DeMoura That’s not to say we don’t receive concerns at times from businesses. Usually there, they have something to do with the construction industry. And then we’ll put the appropriate resources and time towards that. But no, I would say that most time is spent handling and serving concerns of residents.

[15:48] How Eric and his team use key performance indicators to measure the health of the Mount Pleasant community.

Brett Fellows Makes sense. With the data that a town has, and you know, this podcast is really about how businesses create value for themselves. And then at some point in time, maybe even use that value to turn it into their future, whether that be to start another business or to retire.

Brett Fellows And the value of any business, obviously, is the intrinsic value of what they do. Maybe the assets they have. And the largest asset obviously is real estate, but they also have employees and customers. Do you, do cities track that kind of data? Like, do you know the value of commercial real estate, the average number of employees, or average type of revenue in the town of Mount Pleasant?

Eric DeMoura We do. We have all that data, and we track it. What I do, it’s on the wall of my conference room is, with the help of staff, I keep track of what I would call sort of leading indicators on the health of the community. And they’re not always things you might think of. Although I do keep track of it, like crime rate and other things, those are all extremely important.

Eric DeMoura But things like you’re talking about. The value of real estate, number of employees in town, radius, sometimes people have to drive, right? Traffic counts that they’re facing while they’re here. You know, we keep track of a lot of those things to see, to try to get a broader picture of what’s happening. And to get a broader picture of what’s happening, hopefully fast enough, that if there’s something we can do at the local government level, we can pivot and try to do something to help address a concern before it becomes a larger issue.

Brett Fellows Got it. Sure.

Eric DeMoura I mean, you know, Brett. We’re having trouble, I think many businesses are facing this issue with just labor and workforce. And whether it’s because some people are choosing not to work right now, because of other things or they’re not coming to the community because maybe they’re having a difficult time with transportation or public transportation. Or perhaps it’s too far from where they live because maybe the home affordability is an issue.

Eric DeMoura So finding labor and getting labor to the community is a rising problem that we’re having to deal with here. And so you’re seeing myself, as well as Mayor Haynie and members of the elected body, really focus on things as much as we can control that help with that. Whether it’s really pushing for efficient public transportation, or it’s attainable housing, you know, workforce housing initiatives.

Eric DeMoura We met this morning about an initiative looking to go into one of our neighborhoods that may produce as many as 100 townhouses. Affordable units that help our hospitals and help our hospitality industry and help teachers, our education system. So there’s a lot happening, but we monitor those things and help where we can. We try to stay out in front and help.

[19:10] The impact Covid-19 had on the Mount Pleasant business community, and why leading indicators couldn’t predict the magnitude of the drop-off in economic activity.

Brett Fellows Yeah, that’s fascinating to me. And that’s really a good change because I kind of wanted to go there. So to more the present day, even just to backup one step. How do you think, or could you tell what type of impact COVID-19 had in 2020 on the business community? Could you even see a dip in those leading indicators?

Eric DeMoura Yeah. To the point, Brett, where it was, I would say not unrecognizable. But you could, if someone looks back on our numbers, 25 years from now they’re gonna know something significant happened. Because you know, you have, more or less things are sort of stable in normal times, and then there is a really sizable drop-off. And, you know, even things we collect here that we measure, you know.

Eric DeMoura We charge a hospitality tax, which is 2% on every prepared food and beverage. You know, we have sales tax, combinations tax, and to see the dips and drops and things like that is the most significant drop I’ve ever seen in my career. And that includes deep recessions and things like that. But now, someone looking back and looking at our numbers, at some point off in the future will say, well, something really significant happened. And of course, it was the battle against COVID.

[20:35] What Eric believes the pandemic should have highlighted for all business owners, no matter their size or industry.

Brett Fellows Yeah, and what fascinates me, so now if you think forward, you know, how do you envision the next say, 10 years of the business community? Will it change? Like has in some regards COVID-19 changed it for the better? Working from home, we don’t need as much commercial real estate. Do you have any, what would be your inherent thoughts of what the future looks like for business in the town of Mount Pleasant?

Eric DeMoura Well, the first thing that comes to mind is what you just said. I think we will see a difference in working patterns, more flexibility, more technology being used. The other thing, though, that I’ve noticed. And this is something we have in our own strategic planning here at the town. That we have really emphasized is the resiliency piece, you know. We have to be resilient on our end of things so we can provide basic services to people.

Eric DeMoura I mean, you know, we provide a lot of things. But you know, a police officer has to show up when they’re called, and a firefighter and the trash needs to get picked up and so on and so forth. You know, street lights need to work, and traffic signals need to work, and all that. So we have to be resilient on our end, both financially and the ability to respond when you know, there’s a severe manmade or natural disaster. So we’ve been focused on resilience for a long time.

Eric DeMoura And a lot of businesses have to, there’s no question about that. But I think one thing that came to light was perhaps a lot of businesses that weren’t focused on resilience that now are. Because hey, how do you keep going when the store can’t be open, and you can’t be in your office? How do you keep going when whatever has happened has affected half your workforce? And yet still, you have to produce a service or a product.

Eric DeMoura And so these are questions that I think, and I know this from speaking to many businesses, and I know this because we’ve offered the use of our emergency manager, who works here with us, who specializes in these things. And she has made herself available to businesses who have contacted her for help and working out resiliency and emergency plans. So that’s one thing I noticed, besides what you mentioned, that I think, a good thing that has come from this.

Eric DeMoura We all know there’s been a lot of bad things and unfortunate sad things. But one good thing is I think more businesses are understanding the importance of resilience, just for survival. And you know, it’s not just because of COVID-19. It seems as if there’s something new every year. If it’s not, you know, natural disasters, then it could be a manmade disaster as I mentioned earlier.

Eric DeMoura Bridges break, civil unrest, pandemics, there’s a lot of different things that are happening, that are out of our control. Which is really underscoring the need for resilience, not just in public organizations, but also in private,

Brett Fellows And do towns make most of the tax money off of the revenue from the business. So even if I don’t have this office anymore, the town’s still gonna tax me on my revenue because I’m domiciled in the town of Mount Pleasant. Is it that big of a concern if I literally don’t have an office anymore from a town standpoint?

Eric DeMoura Well, sure. Um, you know, our largest source of income is property tax right now. But if the business owner is renting or leasing space, then the owner of that property is paying the property taxes. But another big source of revenue is business license income, which is based on gross revenues.

Eric DeMoura And so, you know, we’re not sure exactly what our experiences with COVID-19 are. How much or how soon the landscape is being changed and what that will look like in the future. But there’s no question that, I think gross revenues will still be, will again be strong for businesses. How the property tax side is affected, that is still unknown.

Brett Fellows Do you, I see your face in the paper all the time at maybe some ribbon ceremony when we have new businesses opening. Do you also get notified when a business leaves?

Eric DeMoura No, not usually. But we tend to find out. And this has always been a concern of mine and a concern of staff. Is if for whatever reason a business is leaving, maybe they’re closing, unfortunately, maybe they’re leaving town. Too often, on our end, we find out after the, too far after the fact.

Eric DeMoura Naturally, it’s in everyone’s interest, that before that decision is made to have a conversation and find out if there’s anything we could have done on our end to help in some way. But too often, Brett, we find out later when you know, that space is being reached now by someone else. That was the indicator someone has gone. Someone has left and we’re not sure why.

[26:30] Eric DeMoura shares what he believes are the most common local government misconceptions from a business owner’s perspective.

Brett Fellows What’s a misconception a business owner has against a city, or say the town of Mount Pleasant? You know, they always think well, they’re just here to tax us. What’s a misconception most people have from a business standpoint?

Eric DeMoura Yeah, I mean, you know, I like to think our work here has resolved many misconceptions. I would like all business owners to know if they’re not feeling this way that we truly do care about them and see them as integral to the community’s success. And I mean, that business is as important to our community as just about anything. I know I would love to have a conversation with any business owner. I know our government would love to help in any way we can.

Eric DeMoura So if there’s anyone out there who feels that we’re not out for them, or we’re not on their side, I would love the opportunity to meet with them and try to convince them that that’s not the case. You know, sometimes they feel that way either because of taxes or because of regulations. And that is a complicated issue. That that’s a long discussion.

Eric DeMoura But there are times when the local government does have to balance interests, right? So, you know, there may be times when the regulations on developments say, have to be stronger, because that’s what the residents are calling for. And having more regulations on development may end up being what preserves the quality of life for the long term. Which continues the community’s desirability, which in the long term helps the business community too, right?

Eric DeMoura So there’s some of that, and so, but I would love the opportunity to talk to the business owner. If they have concerns about regulations, maybe why they are the way they are. And if there’s any other way we can help, we would love to.

Brett Fellows How does the town reconcile, like you’re mentioning the food and beverage tax or even just the tax on the revenue? How do you, I can’t imagine how you even reconcile all those numbers. Do you, does the town literally do it? Or does that get hired out? Or is the state? I mean, how does that work?

Eric DeMoura Yeah, we do it and, you know, perhaps our best resource that we have is our human resources. Our people. And our finance staff, led by our CFO, are tremendous, and they produce quality work every day and help keep those things straight for us. Because there’s several like, it’s an overused term, but it’s one that we all understand.

Eric DeMoura You talk about pots of money. There are several that we have to account for. And by the way, not only are there many, but all of them have different strings attached and how they spend. So it isn’t just the strict or the basic accounting of it. It’s then, how can it be spent? Or how can it not be spent under the law? So we have good people.

Brett Fellows And so people obviously is a tremendous thing. Is there also technology out there coming around the corner? I mean, even the tax on revenue is still me handwriting my revenue and calculating it out. Is there easier ways to help your team with that?

Eric DeMoura Well, we invest in financial software, that helps. But really what works for us is competent, quality people who we trained to understand the ins and outs of particular revenue sources, so that they know going in the specifics and the particulars of how each one works. And so that’s our formula for success.

Eric DeMoura I’m proud to mention, our accounting department has won, you know, they win awards year after year for the quality of their numbers and the quality of their financial statements. So that’s good. That’s a nice thing to have.

[30:59] Eric’s advice for anyone starting a local business, based on his experience as town administrator.

Brett Fellows Yeah. To wrap this up, you have a tremendous spirit and entrepreneurial spirit too, I might add. If you were teaching a class at College of Charleston, let’s say about entrepreneurship, knowing all the things that you have learned as a town administrator, what advice would you give to someone who is starting a business?

Eric DeMoura Well, a few things. I would, you know, coming from the government side, I’d encourage them to get to know their local government leaders. Develop the relationship, understand that it’s important. I’d encourage them to join organizations like the Mount Pleasant Chamber or the Charleston Area Chamber, where you can have colleagues and those kinds of resources. People who may be in similar situations.

Eric DeMoura So I would definitely ask them to do that. But I would also tell them from the government side that their perspective on the government. You know, perhaps think of it more as something, I’ve learned over time. Is that too often we hear about it being public versus private, you know, the government side versus the private side. And that’s, I don’t believe in that.

Eric DeMoura You know, a good public organization, a well-run public entity, a well-run government has more in common with a well-run private organization, private company, than it does with a poorly run government. And I would just flip the reverse. I mean, a well-run private company has more in common with a well-run government than a bad one.

Eric DeMoura So it’s not your public versus your private. It’s those organizations and companies and governments that do it well. Those are the ones that should collaborate, which is why I said to you I would recommend that those individuals develop those relationships. Because there’s a lot we can learn from one another. And instead of sometimes feeling that you’re either on one side or you’re on the other. I don’t see it that way at all.

Brett Fellows Sure. That’s great. Thank you for sharing that. That’s fantastic. And what’s the best way for someone to get in touch with the town of Mount Pleasant?

Eric DeMoura Well, I would direct them to the website. They can always call and ask for me by my first name. And we have support staff that can help, we have people specializing in ways to support our businesses. Our emergency manager, I mentioned earlier, can help with resiliency plans, can visit, talk to a business owner. So they can always call our main number. All of that is available on the website as well.

Brett Fellows And we’ll be sure to post that website in the show notes below. Eric DeMoura, thank you so very much for taking time out of your schedule today. I know you’re very busy.

Eric DeMoura Well, thank you, Brett. I enjoyed the opportunity. And it’s always good to talk with you.

Brett Fellows Great, have a great day.

Eric DeMoura Thank you.

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