EngenuitySC report: Midlands poised to be “economically competitive” in Southeast
Columbia is poised to be an economically competitive city in the Southeast region, according to a report by EngenuitySC.
“This report is what I hope becomes a catalyst for conversation across the Midlands region,” said EngenuitySC Executive Director Meghan Hughes Hickman. “It tells us where we’re succeeding and it underscores those areas where we need additional focus.”
The results of EngenuitySC’s inaugural 2014 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report were met with enthusiasm from business and community leaders, who see a bright future for the region.
“This is an exciting time to live and work in the Midlands — the vibrancy and growth experienced across the region in the last couple of years have provided the momentum we need to take the next step, raise our game and compete on a national level as a thriving urban area,” said University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides.
The report focused on the Columbia metropolitan statistical area, a six-county zone that includes Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Fairfield, Saluda and Calhoun counties. Data was collected for five economic indicators: talent, entrepreneurial and business environment, innovation, industry clusters and livability.
The greater Columbia area, with a population of more than 760,000, ranks number fourth in number of residents behind Greenville; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The region boasts strong numbers in educational attainment, with 6.3 percent of the population holding a two-year degree and 9.2 percent of the population having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. The number of people in the area with degrees in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is higher than the national average.
“Columbia’s educational resources are outstanding. Our K-12 schools begin preparing students for the workforce at a young age, while post-secondary institutions including USC, Benedict College and Midlands Tech not only help prepare our future workforce but also help provide our current workforce with the tools they need to succeed in the new knowledge economy,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “We are lucky to have so many options right here in Columbia and businesses considering the area recognize this as an asset.”
Pastides also said collaboration among universities on projects including CoursePower and access to research helps students in the Midlands develop the skills and training they need to compete for the future job market.
“This is why statewide business leaders often tell me how proud they are to have a top-tier research institution next door. It’s good business,” Pastides said. “And, frankly, a research university impacts all five critical areas by attracting and creating talent, establishing an entrepreneurial and business environment, innovating on daily basis, and establishing cluster groups while improving livability.”
The report found that entrepreneurs find a greater rate of success in generating jobs and new growth, something officials with EngenuitySC call “business churn.” Columbia’s entrepreneurial community is diverse, ranging from the coworking center SOCO to the South Carolina Small Business Development Center, and startups were reported to have ample resources to get their ventures off the ground.
The report recognized the USC/Columbia Technology, which houses more than 40 early stage startup businesses and recently was named a “top three incubator program to watch” by Inc Magazine. The center was awarded $1.9 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build a new 50,000-square-foot facility in the USC Innovista District.
Industry clusters remain strong by generating high employment in nuclear energy, fuel cells, insurance and aerospace.
Columbia’s small and local business community has been buffered by public-private partnerships like the Minority Business Advisory Council, Main Street Capital and Local Business Enterprise Preference Policy, which Benjamin said has contributed to the nearly $1 billion in new investment in the downtown area.
“This report not only shows that those efforts are bearing real fruit, it gives us a road map to take this success to the next level,” Benjamin said.
The Midlands also stands to be economically competitive in the coming years as young professionals find the region a great place to live, work and play, according to the EngenuitySC report. The report showed that more than 30 percent of the population consists of 18-year-olds to 40-year-olds. About 66.6 percent of the population thinks the region boasts a high quality of life, according to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
The report did find sore spots in the region. The crime rate is higher than the national average, though it is lower than those of other cities within the state, including Charleston and Greenville.
The Midlands also still struggles to generate a large concentration of individuals in high-wage occupations and to build employment in STEM occupations, which are both below the national average.
A study from the USC Darla Moore School of Business determined that 29 percent of the population needs to obtain a bachelor’s degree by 2030 to meet the needs of businesses in South Carolina. Based on current degree completion rates, that could mean a shortfall of more 70,000 people to fill jobs by 2030.
“The fact is that in order to continue that growth, the business community and political leadership needs to commit to making the Midlands more competitive,” said Carl Blackstong, Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “Workforce development is a critical piece of the economic equation in the Midlands. If we want to continue to attract and retain businesses, it is vital that we have an educated workforce focused on the fields of the future — science, technology, engineering, and math.”
The results of the report define the greater Columbia area as an emerging market that will be competitive among other comparable cities in the Southeast including Charleston, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Lexington, Kentucky.
Currently, Columbia’s Main Street is experiencing tremendous growth with the opening of the HUB housing complex and infill of vacant space by new businesses. Columbia Commons on Bull Street and a new baseball stadium are expected to generate more than 11,000 new jobs and an estimated $1.2 billion annual economic impact, according to officials with the city of Columbia.
“We believe that great cities grow by choice, not chance,” Benjamin said.