Company expansions, new manufacturing facilities and enduring quality-of-life attributes have propelled the Lowcountry in the post-recession years.
The region’s strong economy is bringing in investment dollars, residents and jobs at a rapid pace, according to the 2017 Regional Economic Scorecard.
“I think all of you in the room know that since 2005, this economy has changed dramatically,” said Mary Graham, chief strategy officer and chief of staff at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “We’re now a globally competitive community, and the export numbers help us demonstrate that.”
Graham was on of four panelists discussing the report’s findings during a recent Power Breakfast event held by the Charleston Regional Business Journal.
The chamber and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance create the report annually to measure regional data against eight comparative communities across the country — Nashville, Austin, Raleigh, N.C., Greenville, Jacksonville, Fla., Seattle, Salt Lake City and Richmond, Va.
The report highlights the Lowcountry’s areas of strength and weakness.
How Charleston stacks up
The region’s average salary increased to $46,000, a 36% jump from 2005 to 2016. The region still lags the national average, which sits at about $53,600. Charleston had the third-largest increase among the nine communities, with Seattle and Salt Lake City having the largest salary increases.
Charleston also saw improvements in human capital — which tracks the number of college graduates and knowledge workers, as well as employment rates — and in innovative and entrepreneurial activities.
“We’re still relatively low in terms of patents applied for out of this community,” said Steve Warner, the CRDA’s vice president of global marketing and regional competitiveness. “We’re still relatively low for venture capital funding for startups, although that’s changing and getting better daily. The real kind of place where we fall behind here is on science-related or STEM graduate students.”
Improvements have been made recently, with nearly 30 new science, technology, engineering and math degrees added or planned since 2016, but the data show that more is needed to handle companies’ workforce demands.
Affording the Lowcountry
The region falls behind comparatively in several categories. Its biggest challenges are connected to its growth and the differences in opinions on how to handle that growth.
Traffic congestion and housing affordability were among the top issues facing the Lowcountry.
Warner said restrictions on multifamily construction created a shortage in the housing supply, driving up costs. Between 2010 and 2016, median household income increased 12% and median home sales prices rose 27%; average monthly rents grew 49%, the report said.
“If you look at this for a low-income person and combine transportation and housing costs, it’s almost 70% of their income,” Warner said. “That’s not sustainable.”
Several panelists said transportation and housing affordability are intrinsically linked.
Many residents must buy or rent housing far from their jobs to find affordable options, and they then must commute to work, resulting in clogged highways.
In the Lowcountry, 81% of all workers drive to work alone, and the majority are driving to communities other than where they live.
“Housing affordability is a huge issue that we face, and it’s getting worse every day. ... We are a region now of commuters,” Graham said. “And if we can address this issue, we can not only solve traffic congestion, we can impact the housing affordability issue as well.”
Michelle Mapp, CEO of the S.C. Community Loan Fund, said the region needs to pursue construction of multifamily developments along current and future transportation routes to help alleviate housing shortages and traffic congestion.
She said the bus rapid transit route that will connect Summerville to downtown Charleston creates an ideal spot for higher-density housing projects. She urged municipalities to cease moratoriums on multifamily housing and instead begin approving zoning to allow such developments.
“We know we have a supply problem, and we know the cost of rents have increased 50%. Every time we put a stop to building more multifamily housing, we’re just compounding the problem,” Mapp said.
She continued: “I know it goes against everyone’s sensibilities of what they love about the Charleston region. But the reality is, if we’re going to house people on a limited supply of land, and if we’re not going to be doing that in Georgetown and Orangeburg and Colleton County, then we’re going to have to do it with higher-density, multifamily housing.”
Read more about the report in the Jan. 2, 2017, print edition of the Business Journal.