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Columbia Business Monthly

South Carolina Needs More ‘Civic Leadership’

Jan 27, 2022 03:13PM ● By Jason Zacher

Our short-term, social media and meme-based political dialogue is destroying a generation of leaders and is dragging down our communities.

That is a harsh accusation to make, I know, but hear me out.

I recently had the opportunity to listen to Bob Corker speak on a variety of subjects to a group of business leaders. For those of you who don’t remember him, Corker is the former Republican senator from Tennessee, as well as the former mayor of Chattanooga. 

He stressed the concept that local governments need civic leadership rather than political leadership. He talked about how Chattanooga revitalized its downtown and riverfront in the late 1980s and 1990s using civic leadership to bring together businesses and government with people of all political, racial, and faith backgrounds, and on and on and on. 

That sounds exactly like another city that people reading this column are probably familiar with.

Civic leadership is the forward-thinking leadership that sparks the kind of generational change that Greenville (and Chattanooga) saw in the 1980s and 1990s. That kind of leadership challenges the entire community to think bigger and be better. 

It tackles tough issues head-on, isn’t afraid to try new things, and admits it doesn’t have all the answers. It is the humble politics of addition and multiplication. 

Far too often these days, political leadership in our nation fights for the next election, divides the electorate, and sparks controversy in legislative bodies. It seeks little more than to placate the loudest voices. It is cocky and arrogant.

It is the politics of subtraction and division. It doesn’t heed President Truman’s quote, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” 

Greenville has long had a history of effective civic leadership. As I listened to Senator Corker’s presentation, I thought, “I’ve heard this story before.” 

A few months ago, I wrote an op-ed about local leadership and stressed a few numbers: 88 percent, 220,000, 46 percent.

We’ve found a few updates for those numbers. When the newest per-capita income data was released in November, it turns out the Greenville metro area slid even further to 85 percent of the national average. 

That means we’re now sacrificing $3.5 billion a year in economic activity as too many of our political leaders continue to bicker over the politics of personal vendettas or run down rabbit holes of conspiracy. 

According to the Federal Reserve, $3.5 billion is the equivalent of adding 10 percent to our area’s 2020 local Gross Domestic Product. That is a significant number because we cannot promote economic inclusion without economic development. We cannot spread prosperity across our state if we don’t create it.

Based on building permit activity, our population growth isn’t slowing down from the prediction of 220,000 new residents in Greenville County by 2040. The Homebuilders Association recently compiled numbers that residential construction value in our county is on pace to add more than $1 billion in real estate value in 2021.

That’s the equivalent of adding a University Ridge development just this year. That is an astounding amount of construction in a community our size.

To add to that, there was controversy at the state level this fall that there were too many people claiming a tax credit for building affordable housing. The $80 million in state tax credits means there was $2 billion in affordable housing being planned across our state.

Is that a corporate giveaway? No. It shows the tremendous backlog and demand for affordable housing, and developers are willing to build to meet the need. That should be supported not stymied. 

Educational attainment numbers haven’t been updated, but we can all agree that we need more than 46 percent of our community sporting a college degree or a high-quality industry certification. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have civic leaders. There are bold voices who want to bring together disparate groups and make life better for everyone in greater Greenville. They’re working on economic development and inclusion, educational attainment, and responsible development.

They’re reaching out and listening to those on opposite sides and encouraging honest, real dialogue. But we need more of them in elected offices across our state in 2022.

To tackle our challenges – and make our state the place we all want it to be – we need more civic leaders and fewer political leaders. We need more focus on what we can be and less focus on the immediate political rewards or “wins” against a political rival. 

As our community boldly heads into the 2022 election year, I hope we all set a political new year’s resolution to think like civic leaders and work for what’s best for South Carolina, even if it’s not what the loudest voices are clamoring for.

Jason Zacher is senior vice president of business advocacy for the Greenville Chamber of Commerce.