July 1, 2006

Digital Corridor chief resigns

Kyle Stock  /  The Post and Courier

Architect of Charleston program to become private consultant

Ernest Andrade, the city economic development official who launched the Charleston Digital Corridor, is stepping down after 18 years in municipal government to take his strategies on the road.

He has incorporated a consultancy dubbed Andrade Economics to teach other communities the techniques he used to cultivate a budding technology industry in Charleston. His last day as a city employee will be Aug. 30.

"I am professionally at my creative best and I want to be able to share with the rest of the world what I've learned," Andrade said. "This isn't something that necessarily needs to be kept in a bottle."

It was unclear Friday if the city has a succession plan. Mayor Joe Riley could not be reached for comment, and only a few members of City Council had heard of the resignation.

During his time with the city, Andrade, 42, didn't dangle incentives, wine and dine CEOs or cold-call prospects. He was also not much for meetings, studies and bureaucracy. Instead, Andrade took small, quick steps to fertilize Charleston's tech landscape, such as lining up parking, tracking open office space and plugging newcomers into the network of area financiers and like-minded techies.

"The position we've taken is to hit small singles every day, so even if that big economic development home run doesn't come, you're going to have successes," he said. "It's the epitome of an initiative crafted by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs."

Savannah's Creative Coast, a nonprofit economic development organization, studied the Digital Corridor's model before it launched in 2003, according to executive director Chris Miller. "(Andrade) is clearly ahead of his time," Miller said. "We're talking about small, fast, flexible entrepreneurs. They don't have time for bull and bureaucracy."

Andrade's approach helped win Digital Lifestyle Outfitters, a Raleigh-based company that sells iPod gadgets, which moved here in mid-2004. Jeff Grady, the company's chief executive officer, said Andrade was an ambassador when his team came to check out Charleston. "It was a very personal experience," he said. "(Andrade) picked us up and drove us around town and had some potential office space already identified for us to look at. ... I don't even think the people in Raleigh knew what we were doing."

Since relocating here, Digital Lifestyle has grown from four local workers to 20 and from $22 million in annual revenue to more than $100 million. City Councilman Henry Fishburne said results like that will be missed when Andrade goes. "I was always impressed with his intelligence level and his effort, his dedication," Fishburne said. "If he leaves the community and if he leaves the peninsula, it will leave a gap there. I hope we can fill it sometime in some way."

Andrade was born in Kuwait, grew up in India and immigrated to the U.S. in 1981. He earned a bachelor's degree from the College of Charleston and a master's in public administration from the University of South Carolina before joining the city's Planning Department 18 years ago, and later moving to economic development. Having seen both sides of outsourcing, Andrade shifted his focus away from industrial businesses and launched the Digital Corridor initiative in 2001.

"There was no ah-ha moment," he said. "But there were moments when you pulled people aside privately and asked them to be very candid. And out of that candor came the strategy."

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. 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 development coordinator Kimberly Demetriades.

Fishburne said he thought Andrade felt unappreciated and was frustrated with the city's financial commitment. "I think in general he was hoping for more support and hoping to do bigger and better things," he said.

Andrade will continue to serve as director of the Digital Corridor Foundation, a nonprofit made up of local tech executives that loans money to area startups.