Business, Innovation and the Four States of South Carolina

  • Friday, November 22, 2013



This week I had occasion to be in all four parts of South Carolina, talking with a wide variety of business people about innovation, our state and its future. What they said was both extremely encouraging and extremely discouraging.

First the good news. From one end of this state to the other, there are lots of really smart people who fully understand what we have to do to become competitive in the challenging global economy of the 21st Century. They get it.

And each of the four main regions of our state have both real assets and strengths, and if we can figure out a way to all work together with a single long-term strategy, we can be global winners. But we need to realize that the regions really are different; in many ways we are like four separate states as opposed to one state with four regions.

Greenville and the Upcountry are thriving. To drive along I-85 from Anderson to Gaffney is like driving through a veritable United Nations of companies and flags. Over virtually every hill and around every corner is another low-rise modern building with various countries’ flags blowing in the breeze. The region is home to over 250 international companies from 45 nations. The list includes such global giants as Adidas, BMW Manufacturing, Fraenkische, Fujifilm, Lear Corporation, Michelin, Nestle, Robert Bosch Corp, Siemens, Techtronics and on and on it goes.

Our challenge as a state is to leverage this global success beyond the Upstate region to the rest of the state. As one international executive said to me, “I have no reason to go east of Simpsonville.” And, like many others in his position, he doesn’t.

Columbia and the Midlands are an entirely different story. The folks there and their employers are predominately South Carolinians–either by birth or by choice. They live where their family roots are deep; they care deeply and passionately about our state.

But, as one legislator/ businessman with a revered South Carolina family name commented, “We are a government town. For good or ill, the bulk of people here get their pay checks either directly or indirectly from some government entity–state government, USC or Fort Jackson.”

For the independent entrepreneur who starts businesses, builds companies and thrives on innovation, the Midlands can be a lonely place. As my Columbia friend said, “If you are getting a government pay check and counting on a long-term pension, you have no incentive to take a risk and start a business.”

Then there is Charleston and the Lowcountry. Since the birth of our state, Charleston has been a unique place with a character all its own. There is still a bit of “old Charleston” left, with a relative handful of folks living off the money that was first accumulated by their ancestors years ago, but that is changing rapidly. Today, the fine old houses on the Battery are just as likely to be occupied by hedge-fund managers who commute to Wall Street during the week as they are by old Charleston families with names like Rutledge or Pinckney.

Charleston has its own special vibe. The creative culture is exploding, with fine restaurants, truly great art and a burgeoning high-tech industry featuring funny-sounding names such as Blackbaud, BenefitFocus, BoomTown and Blue Acorn. It’s no accident that Conte Nast magazine’s global readers recently voted Charleston their favorite place on the planet to visit.

But, even with all this good news, Charleston today is at a crossroads. Over the last 40 years, Mayor Joe Riley has taken it to the cusp of being a world class city–and now he is leaving. In addition, there will soon be new presidents at the College of Charleston and MUSC. How well this citywide “changing of the guard” is handled may well determine whether Charleston and the Lowcountry truly attain sustainable world-class status.

Finally, there is the aptly-dubbed Forgotten South Carolina–the region of our state that all the folks whizzing by on the interstate highways never see. It’s the infamous Corridor of Shame, which only becomes more shameful with the passage of time. It’s the little counties like Edgefield, McCormick, or Newberry that have something–a state prison, small college or state park–but no real assets to build a vibrant economy in the digital age.

When I asked a small businessman in one of these counties what they needed most, he quickly replied, “Everything – we got lots of wonderful people, but little else to build on.”

In my talks with these folks from across the state, there was one thing that they all agreed on: our two largest and most basic institutions–state government and public education–are failing us all. Considered dysfunctional at best–and flat-out corrupt by many–virtually no one I talked with expected any help from either.

And that is the great challenge facing our state. We are four regions with great potential, but we are more like four independent states, because the institutions that are supposed to serve us all, to unite us in a common purpose, are failing us.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The question is whether we, as a state, are willing to do what’s required to change it.



Phil Noble is a businessman from Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to politics. phil@scnewdemocrats.org www.SCNewDemocrats.org

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