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Columbia Business Monthly

Richland County: Economy Rests on Stable Legs

Oct 02, 2017 10:54AM ● By Makayla Gay

By Richard Breen

Richland County trailed the rest of South Carolina in terms of economic growth recently, which is not necessarily indicative of a problem.

“The industries that anchor Richland County typically don’t see volatile growth,” says Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. It means that while Richland County doesn’t boom like some other counties around the state, it also doesn’t bust.

An analysis by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce estimated that the gross domestic product of the Columbia metro area (which includes Richland and neighboring counties) grew by 5.4 percent between 2009-13. That compares to the statewide rate of 7.6 percent and above-average growth in the Greenville (9.9 percent) and Charleston (10.9 percent) metros.

“It’s just a very stable economy,” says Jeff Ruble, the county’s economic development director.

Richland County’s stability comes from a sturdy, three-legged economic platform of state government, the military (particularly Fort Jackson) and higher education (particularly the University of South Carolina).

“That’s traditionally what Columbia has relied on,” Ruble says.

There are 20,627 state employees based in Richland, more than double any other county. More than 3,500 active-duty soldiers are assigned to Fort Jackson, which employs nearly an equal number of civilians and trains more than 40,000 soldiers each year.

USC issued a recent study that measured its economic impact on South Carolina at $5.5 billion systemwide. In Richland County, USC alumni alone account for 5,412 jobs, $209 million in income, and nearly $691 million in economic output.

Von Nessen says a fourth leg of economic support is forming around health care, which includes hospital systems such as Palmetto Health as well as other health services providers and insurers.

He conducted a 2012 study of Columbia-based insurer BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina that estimated its statewide economic impact at $4.8 billion per year. BCBSSC says that it currently accounts for nearly 7,000 full-time, part-time, and contractor jobs in the Columbia area.

Insurers are part of a large workforce of professionals in the county. Richland ranks second behind Beaufort with 90.1 percent of persons 25 and older having a high school diploma and third with 36.4 percent of those folks possessing at least a bachelor’s degree.

“I would call it a fairly entrepreneurial community,” says Mike Brenan, South Carolina state president for BB&T, which employs 182 workers at bank branches and other operations across the Midlands. “I think there are a lot of things going on under the radar.”

Richland County is also home to a growing base of manufacturers. In 2016, fiberglass manufacturer China Jushi announced it would build a $300 million, 400-employee facility.

“We have a pretty diverse manufacturing sector, and the numbers are better than you think,” Ruble says. The Jushi announcement made a statement. “Columbia’s a viable option when you’re looking to put a manufacturing plant somewhere.”

Or if you’re looking to grow. In August, the S.C. Department of Commerce announced that the Trane subsidiary of Ingersoll Rand plc would expand its existing Richland County operations. The HVAC company pledged to invest $96 million and create 700 jobs.

“We selected Columbia because its proximity to east coast customers; the size of the property, which could accommodate the expansion; the availability of skilled labor; and relationships with local technical schools and colleges,” says Heidi McGuire, an Ingersoll Rand spokeswoman.

Trane has operated its facility off Killian Road since 2003. It is currently 285,000 square feet and the expansion would add 680,000 square feet.

“When you have these large manufacturing announcements, it immediately provides opportunities for small businesses to provide services,” says Brenan, who also serves as chairman of the Central SC Alliance, which facilitates economic development throughout the Midlands.

Von Nessen can put a number to it.

“For every job created directly in manufacturing, we see 2-3 jobs created elsewhere,” Von Nessen says. “Any major manufacturing announcement in Richland County is incredibly important.”

Earlier this year, the Colliers real estate firm predicted that continued momentum in manufacturing and distribution would pull Midlands vacancy rates down while encouraging speculative construction.

“We need more industrial buildings, we need more industrial sites, and we need more Class A office space,” Ruble says. “You can’t sell what you don’t have.”

Brenan says that when manufacturers or other economic development prospects talk to him, their first questions are about the regulatory environment, infrastructure, and schools. Then the conversation turns to quality of life.

“We’ve got plenty of opportunities for entertainment and a vibrant Main Street now,” he says. “I think everybody’s interested in living in an area that’s got some vibrancy. If they can check that box, that’s a good thing.”