Companies are beginning to realize that small South Carolina towns in rural areas can be good places to relocate or start a new business, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said at the opening address of the S.C. Rural Summit in Aiken on Monday.


The event included staffers from the S.C. Commerce Department, including Maceo Nance, director of the department's Small Business and Rural Development division.


“Companies may actually prefer rural areas that are community-driven,” Haley said.


With the help of the Commerce Department, jobs have recently emerged in 45 of the 46 counties, she said. Personnel with the agency are getting additional bonuses for their roles in bringing industry to rural counties like Jasper, Barnwell and Clarendon counties.


The concept in the beginning is to drive through small communities as a CEO would do.


“One town needed to have a misspelled sign changed,” Haley said. “Another area informed people in a sign that it was No. 1 in HIV (occurrences), and that sign was taken down.”


Commerce has been looking at the beautification of rural areas, she said. If a town has old or abandoned buildings, the state can come in to some of those locations and demolish some of them. Others can be refurbished to be more attractive to prospective businesses.


“We're partners,” Haley said of the communities, “but you have to help us.”


She wants communities to stop infighting and work together to move their towns forward.


The Commerce Department has focused on issues such as health care, education improvements and churches, she said. The graduation rate is crucial, and so are opportunities such as welding and other hands-on skills.


Those without diplomas should be encouraged to get a GED, and, “There's nothing wrong with that,” Haley said.


She has focused in large part on infrastructure needs, and the legislature is responding, she said. While towns and counties won't lose companies because of infrastructure, the state will look for ways to help, Haley said.


“Everybody is starting to step up,” Haley said. “You deserve as much as anybody else. I'm a rural girl, and I'm passionate about this. I know about family businesses, and you've got challenges, but you can overcome them.”


Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership, was pleased that Haley participated in the summit.


Aiken has pockets of success, but overall, the county includes many rural areas as well, he said. Williams noted that 200 new jobs are coming to Graniteville, providing a big boost to that community.


“We continue to try to identify infrastructure needs in those communities,” said Williams. “Sometimes there are limits to water and sewer that industry needs, but we just have to keep moving forward.”


Aiken City Councilmember Lessie Price and new County Councilmember Andrew Siders agree about the county's rural needs.


“They deserve attention,” Siders said. “As I drive around Aiken County, since I've been on County Council, I have more of a view that we're all one county.”


Officials and other county leaders should let people in rural areas know about job opportunities, Price said, as one way that county, city and state officials can address the needs of those areas.