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Columbia Business Monthly

Midlands Businesses Running the Baton in Lengthy Relay Race

Mar 06, 2018 02:25PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Kristine Hartvigsen

Sometimes the finish line can be an elusive target. Add year-over-year data to the mix, and it even becomes a moving goal. While the race itself can be messy at times, the Midlands-area economic relay team leaders are enjoying a series of smooth handoffs in carrying the baton forward.

EngenuitySC, a nonprofit that promotes public and private entrepreneurial collaborations to enhance the long-term competitiveness of the Midlands region, on January 29 released its 2017 Midlands Region Competitiveness Report. This is the fourth annual report in a multi-year project to gauge in quantifiable terms growth and prosperity across Lexington, Richland, Saluda, Fairfield, Kershaw, and Calhoun counties in comparison to similarly situated metropolitan areas in the southeast region.

According to the latest report, the Midlands showed measurable improvement over the past year on several key competitiveness indicators. However, it lost some ground over the life of the multi-year project thus far.

EngenuitySC Executive Director Meghan Hickman cautioned against making hasty conclusions.

“We can’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae and detail of data. We can’t get stuck there,” she said. “We need to stay focused on what we have control over.”

Hickman is excited to see even short-term improvement in the competitiveness indicators measuring talent, entrepreneurial environment, innovation, industry clusters, and livability — the Midlands’ strongest index relative to its peer regions. For example, the Columbia area is growing 36 percent faster than the national average in employment in the arts, entertainment, and recreation.

“You look for the wins,” Hickman said. “We improved on almost everything over last year’s numbers.”

In addition, the Midlands continues to show improvement in cost of living as well as a marked increase in innovative capacity thanks to research and development investment by the local University as well as by area businesses.

“This is a long-term challenge. It doesn’t happen overnight,” noted Doug Woodward, Director of the Division of Research at the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business. “We have work to do. We have got to run faster. Our peers are running fast.”

Woodward’s team has been compiling the information for the Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) from both public and private data sources. Communities identified for comparison purposes include Raleigh, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Lexington-Fayette, Ky.; and Tallahassee, Fla., among others.

“Overall, we are making progress,” Woodward said. “There will always be some volatility. But there are definitely a lot of positives.”

For example, the Midlands continues to exceed the national average in livability – a key component in attracting top talent – even though livability dropped five points between 2014 and 2017. The Midlands has exceeded the livability national average for each of the four years studied despite a drop from 107 to 102 in the past year. “Crime pulled us down,” Woodward explained. Violent crime rates in the Midlands increased from 585.5 to 650.6 per 100,000 population, a significant impediment. At the same time, the area has a good cost of living and good access to health care.

Correspondingly, the Midlands’ ranking in recruiting talent declined, due in part to a slight decrease in “knowledge workers” with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. “We are still lagging behind the nation in terms of talent,” Woodward said. Nonetheless, Columbia tied with Tallahassee for sixth among the 10 comparative metropolitan areas studied in terms of talent, an improvement from eighth place in 2016.

First Citizens Bank Executive Vice President James Bennett spoke at the announcement on behalf of the Midlands Business Leadership Group (MBLG), a coalition of business leaders from the area’s largest employers, that it has formed working groups to identify priorities and instigate action. “This is not just another publication to put on the shelf,” he said.

The group listed riverfront development and regional branding among its top priorities. “We have to have a will to live better,” Bennett said. “We have a diverse community, and we have a river that no longer divides us.”

“We need to continue to focus on cluster development,” Woodward said. “Greenville is an example of what can happen,” with its expanding automotive cluster anchored by companies like BMW, JTEKT, and Michelin.

Hickman adamantly concluded: “There is no question in my mind that the best days for the Midlands are ahead of us.”

View the full report