Each year, the Seattle Metro Chamber leads a delegation of business, government, and civic leaders to a United States city to explore best practices, benchmark our region, and make connections. This June, our delegation heads to Charleston, South Carolina.
In late January, several Chamber staffers traveled to Charleston to get the lay of the land and speak with local civic and business leaders as we built the trip agenda. We discovered a city of collaboration, long-term planning, resilience, and strong, consistent leadership.
Charleston has a quickly-growing economy, like the Seattle region. Ranked 16th in the Milken Institutes's 2018 Best-Performing Cities report, the region is also seeing strong population and income growth. They also face many of the challenges that come with fast growth, including traffic, housing affordability, and an evolving city identity.
One striking factor in Charleston's growth is the intention behind it. The Charleston metro region was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which was at the time the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with the cost of physical damage estimated to be $6.272 billion. Seven years later, the city saw the closure of its naval base. The New York Times reports that at the time of its closure, "the 91-year-old, 1,600-acre base was the city's largest employer, responsible for 22,000 jobs, including about 8,000 civilian jobs, and more than a third of the local economy."
In the wake of these two shocks to the regional economy, local leaders came together to develop a strategy for how the Charleston area could sustain jobs, build economic diversity, and maintain the city's livability. This started 25 years of regional work that brought business, government, and community together. The Times notes, "Charleston County and two adjoining counties put aside years of rivalry in recruiting new business, declaring a truce and forming the Regional Development Alliance to seek investments on behalf of all three."
The Boeing Company helped the dominoes fall into place. In 2009, the company broke ground in Charleston, which is now home to Boeing's second 787 Dreamliner final assembly and delivery facility. Boeing's decision brought more middle-wage jobs in the community and also spurred an advanced manufacturing sector. It gave confidence to other companies like Volvo and Mercedes to start operations in their region. The 787 facility siting also gave rise to a workforce development system based on employer needs. Housed at Trident Technical College, ReadySC works in tandem with the college to provide company-specific training and work directly with companies on curriculum that retrains existing workers and develops the future workforce .
City leaders also recognize that keeping Charleston's downtown a top tourist destination is vital to its economy. Charleston was named America’s favorite destination, as the #1 City in the U.S. and Canada by Travel + Leisure Magazine, and is also home to three James Beard Award-Winning restaurants. In our conversations with the region's leaders, they credited the start of Charleston's vibrant downtown to the vision of the city's now-retired 40-year mayor, Joe Riley. In the 1970s, much of downtown consisted of vacant lots. Today, many of those lots have been redeveloped into hotels, retail, and more, and the area has become the walkable, vibrant downtown of Charleston. The city is still working through some challenges, such as building height restrictions, urban flooding, housing affordability, and traffic for hospitality workers – and we will dive deeper into their solutions with the delegation in June.
A few other key industries and topics we will explore on the study mission:
- The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is Charleston’s largest non-federal employer at 14,000 employees. It is one of the nation’s top academic health science centers. The university's research, innovation, and ties to the community were spoken very highly of in almost all our meetings.
- The Port of Charleston was the eighth busiest seaport in the United States last year. Their harbor deepening project has progressed more quickly than any federal deepening project, with tremendous support by elected officials on all levels, as well as, business leaders and the community. Their inland port system is innovative, efficient, has reduced carbon emissions, and now they are seeing clusters of business pop up near these inland port hubs.
- Sea level rise and flooding have become business issues that could start affecting growth and the quality of life. It is a bipartisan priority and one of the Mayor’s top priorities. In 2018, the Governor of South Carolina started the Floodwater Commission. It is a problem that extends far beyond their corner of the world, so they are collaborating and learning best practices from other cities like Amsterdam to try and learn how to live with flooding as a part of their city.
- In 2017, Brookings named Charleston one of eight US metro areas that improved inclusive economic outcomes for both whites and people of color. It tracks metropolitan progress in the areas of overall growth, prosperity, and inclusion. We will explore what has made Charleston one of the eight, and how community initiatives like Illumination Project keep them at the forefront of this work.
We are excited to bring our region’s thought-leaders to this vibrant city for knowledge sharing and a better understanding of our own region. Take a look at our trip agenda and find out more about our 2019 Intercity Study Mission here.