Manufacturing and life sciences are driving growth, but the good times have led to transportation and housing challenges
By Dustin Waters
With almost 30 new residents moving to the region every day, Charleston County has no difficulty attracting talent and businesses. Instead, the main concern locally is maintaining a balance between industry and quality of life that keeps the region’s economic engines humming.
“I think it’s safe to say that manufacturing is alive and well. It accounted for about 33 percent of what’s going on,” says Steve Dykes, Charleston County’s executive director of economic development, describing industry growth over the past two years. “Manufacturing, that broad category, also includes automotive and aerospace.”
He adds, “The other thing that I think is very noteworthy in Charleston County is life sciences. We had six announcements in the life sciences space. That includes drug makers, medical devices, research organizations that perform clinical trials.”
Since 2017, Charleston County has been home to 39 major new business announcements, accounting for 2,246 new jobs created in the area and $241 million in capital investments. Including Charleston County’s ever-expanding lineup of brewers and distillers, manufacturing made up almost half of these new and expanding businesses, followed by the life science sector and IT.
Five to 10 additional projects in Charleston County are expected to be announced by the end of 2019, but the real takeaway is that a vast majority of activity in the area is related to expansions, rather than new businesses coming to the area. Of the 39 new projects announced over the past two years, 74 percent have been news of expansions—meaning that businesses already in Charleston County like what they see.
Working with a wide collection of organizations throughout the county, Charleston County’s Office of Economic Development relies on a healthy partnership between local school districts, municipalities, and private businesses to connect students with careers in the area. One example of this collaborative effort is the S.C. Aeronautical Training Center at Trident Tech. Providing training for those looking to enter into the region’s advanced manufacturing sector, the $80 million center received around a quarter of its funding from the county, according to Dykes.
“We have 24 people a day moving here, two-thirds of which are college-educated. We’ve already got a very strong base of college-educated people living in Charleston County. Much higher than any of our neighboring counties,” says Dykes. “I think we are just going to continue to see a wave of brains, if you will, coming into the area. There was a time back in the ’90s when we were worried about brain drain. We had people go to school here, get educated here, and then promptly leave due to the lack of meaningful career choices. Everything is totally reversed now. We’re a center where people come.”
Dykes points to the closure of the Charleston Naval Base in 1993 as the event that spurred local leaders to reconsider how they do business in Charleston County. Since that time, the area has become home to a diverse and healthy economy. Now, the focus moving forward is making sure all this growth doesn’t ruin what brought so many to Charleston in the first place.
“We never want to have growth in general compromise our quality of life here. There’s a lot of emphasis that’s going on now with all the governments here about the transportation system and affordability,” says Dykes.
In addition to an increased push to improve and expand regional public transportation, the Charleston Regional Development Alliance recently sponsored an effort called Reboot the Commute, for which members of the local business community announced they would be offering more flexible working hours to reduce rush hour traffic congestion. Meanwhile, Dykes says his office is working on outreach into the county’s more impoverished communities, making sure that these residents are aware of any new job openings that may be available.
“We’ve had wild success, but with that wild success has come a lot of infusion of money into the community, a lot of development, and development over time can cause gentrification. We’ve seen things becoming less affordable for some folks in our community,” says Dykes. “We have to be focused on workforce housing. We have to be focused on improving the commute and trying to get better public transportation inaugurated here in Charleston. That’s our big emphasis moving forward.”