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Economic developers bullish on Upstate

Distribution & Logistics
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By Dudley Brown
Contributing writer

A new year and a new decade are underway, and economic development leaders across the Upstate expect the growth and progress from the 2010s to continue in 2020.

Unemployment rates approached 12% at the start of the 2010s and dropped to under 2% in parts of the Upstate by the end of the decade. The region is a popular destination for people looking to relocate and its economy is becoming more diverse.

“If you look at the region over the past 10 years it’s been a phenomenal decade,” said John Lummus, president and CEO of Upstate SC Alliance. “We’ve had tens of billions of dollars in investment in the past decade.”

Lummus said the Upstate was still reeling from textile industry losses at the start of the 2010s. By the end of the decade, the region diversified its economy, including different types of manufacturing. The automotive sector continued its growth. The aerospace and life science industries also grew in the Upstate and the region gained more tech sector and back-office jobs.

That momentum is expected to continue in 2020, but usual uncertainties could set in later in the year, Lummus said. It’s an election year in the United States and there is still much to sort through across the pond with Brexit.

But investments in the Upstate’s infrastructure and a collaborative approach among its counties to market the region is expected to contribute to continued growth, Lummus said.

A key priority for the next decade will involve continuing to build the Upstate’s workforce. Lummus said it’s important to keep the region’s college graduates here and to make sure they are aware of the opportunities available. It’s also important to make sure students in grades k-12 are being prepared for STEM careers and that families understand the jobs available to those without four-year degrees.

Increasing the skills of the region’s workforce and diversifying available jobs should help the region narrow the gap that has traditionally existed between the Upstate and the national average in per capita income, Lummus said. 

Lummus expects one of the Upstate’s newest targets to be growth in the food and food processing sector because more of those companies would like locations along the East Coast.

Economic development leaders in Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg counties are anticipating a good 2020 with intentions of focusing on the region’s future needs. 

Burriss Nelson, Anderson County’s economic development director, describes Anderson as making major gains in the past decade. The county made 72 announcements involving new employers or existing businesses expanding between 2010 and 2019. That included 5,600 new manufacturing jobs. The county also saw its average salary per hour increase from just under $14 an hour to $19.14 an hour by the end of the decade. “Anderson has had a fabulous 10 years,” Nelson said.

Like many Upstate counties, now that unemployment rates are hovering around 2% and there are still plenty of opportunities to attract jobs, there is also a need to recruit more people to the area to fill those jobs. 

Nelson said Anderson’s population has grown 1.5% a year for a number of years. He expects that to continue for the next 10 years. There’s also still plenty of room for development. He said Anderson is 726 square miles and much of it is still undeveloped.

“We still have a lot of opportunities for industrial growth along our interstate corridor,” he said.

Nelson said the county’s requests for information dipped to 41 last year after being between 50 and 60 a year for several years, but a number of projects remain on track and Anderson is recruiting better quality jobs that are providing good benefits and retirement packages.

Anderson’s commercial enterprises continue to grow downtown and along Clemson Boulevard. His office anticipates growth toward Clemson to continue through 2020 and the coming years.

Carlos Phillips, president and CEO of the Greenville Chamber, said Greenville’s diverse economy played an important role in helping the county not only weather the recession at the beginning of the last decade but thrive today.

“Our diverse economy helped us,” Phillips said. “We don’t rely on a single industry for our success. Manufacturing propelled the growth, but professional services, tourism and hospitality have grown as well.”

Phillips said Greenville is also growing as a community for entrepreneurs through Next and the Minority Business Accelerator, which has helped more than 100 businesses grow.

A major focus in 2020 will involve planning for the future growth that Greenville and the rest of the Upstate anticipates. Greenville County is projected to grow by 220,000 people over the next 20 years. Preparing for that growth involves improving the county’s transit system and thinking through regional strategies with Anderson and Spartanburg counties, Phillips said. Those strategies include affordable housing and continuing to attract jobs for the growing population.

Phillips also describes plans for Greenville County Square, a downtown convention center and Unity Park as transformational projects.

“It’s projects like these that can transform our community and make it much better than we are today,” Phillips said. “We’ve built a community that current residents want to remain in and others want to move here. We want this growth to maintain our sense of place. We have to be intentional about that and just as intentional as we were to get where we are today.”

Phillips said the Greenville Chamber will continue advocating to improve teacher salaries to retain educators and to attract more teachers to the state. One of the chamber’s legislative priorities is support to modernize the state’s current tax structure to make South Carolina more competitive when recruiting businesses.

Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said Spartanburg County is entering 2020 with a special energy.

“We’ve been able to build a culture of confidence,” Smith said. “If we get them in this market, we sell them. There’s a swagger that we haven’t had before.”

Spartanburg received $5 billion in investment between 2013 and 2018. That amounts to $1 out of every $4 invested in South Carolina coming through a Spartanburg investment.

Smith expects Spartanburg to have a strong 2020 because of its “hard advantages,” including interstates, available land, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, railways and the S.C. Inland Port. Spartanburg County is also growing its workforce by taking steps to keep graduates from the county’s seven colleges. Spartanburg has the No. 8 fastest-growing millennial population in the United States, according to the chamber.

“They’re coming to Spartanburg for college from all over the world and they’re staying,” Smith said. “They see themselves here. That’s new.”

The county also has 8,100 new housing permits for unincorporated communities.

Smith said one out of four businesses located in Spartanburg’s downtown weren’t there three years ago and there is still room to grow.

“We’re on the cusp of transformative projects downtown that will create jobs,” Smith said.

Like Phillips, Smith said attention must be given to make the state more competitive to attract more employers, especially for the growing workforce. Smith cites how Georgia has 18 Fortune 500 companies, North Carolina has 12, but South Carolina has none.

However, progress is taking place.

“You can’t talk about what’s happening now without acknowledging so many people in this community who continue to invest in Spartanburg and we have investment coming in from all over the world,” Smith said.

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