South Carolina Economic Development Packs a Punch

I really enjoyed listening to Robert Hitt III speak in Charleston at the Counselors of Real Estate’s (CRE) annual meeting last month. Robert, or Bobby as he introduced himself, is Secretary of Economic Development for South Carolina. He’s a professional who lays it all out there, unabashedly, to tell you like it is. It was very refreshing. Not only has he held various economic development roles, but he’s also worked and been hugely successful in private industry, including serving as manager of Corporate Affairs at the BMW Manufacturing Company in Spartanburg County and spent 17 years as managing editor of The State and Columbia Record newspapers. He’s funny and loves his job, and it shows.

During his presentation, he made it clear how big and bold he is on the state of South Carolina and its progress with economic development. Since 2011, SC Commerce has recruited approximately $32 billion in capital investment and more than 118,000 new jobs. During Hitt’s tenure, the state has achieved an export sales record in each year, topping $32 billion in total export sales for the first time in 2017.

He made a compelling case about foreign investment coming to his state. He shared that South Carolina is No. 1 on a per capita basis when it comes to the amount of foreign investment they have attracted. In terms of total investment, S.C. ranks 4th overall nationwide, competing against the likes of California, New York, Florida, and Washington state.

As Hitt puts it, South Carolina is fighting above its weight class, while states like North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia are getting bloodied.

I remember when I was an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston. I went abroad and studied business in Europe for a summer as part of the college. It struck me then how aggressive South Carolina was in attracting investment. And that was in the late 1980s. What I didn’t understand at the time was the state had to be aggressive overseas because few in the U.S. were willing to invest there primarily because of state lawmakers’ refusal to take down the Confederate flag that flew above the S.C. State House. Frankly, Germany and China didn’t seem to care and liked how business got done on a handshake in South Carolina.

Hitt’s right when he says N.C. didn’t fare well in its fight and took a good punch to the nose. South Carolina gets great manufacturing jobs that I’m envious of. But Hitt was candid when he was asked about why headquarters deals are not moving to the state anytime soon.

Here are the top 3 reasons why Bobby Hitt will not achieve global domination in the near term:

  1. The issue of the trailing spouse – It may surprise you, but the fact that two-employee families have a hard time relocating to South Carolina is a very big deal. If you are a two-employee family living in New York City, for example, one of the spouses may find a great job in Greenville, but the other one is probably not going to find anything similar to what he or she has in the area they are leaving.
  2. Incenting Investment, not white-collar jobs. The incentives for economic development in South Carolina target manufacturing jobs, not executives. North Carolina has a similar issue, but we have urban areas, and one other huge advantage when recruiting headquarters.
  3. Charlotte’s Airport is our crown jewel. No big office headquarters is going to move to the Palmetto State because there’s no large airport. South Carolina economic developers would snatch Charlotte’s airport away in a heartbeat. But they see little else that they lack when comparing themselves to What Charlotte has to offer.

To sum up, a great presentation by Bobby. And praise to him and his team for their work luring foreign investment. North Carolina may need to put in some more time training in the weight room, to go with Bobby’s fighting above weight analogy.

Interested in learning more about how incentives measure up for your business? Give me a call. I have over 20 years experience working with growing companies, and I have served on numerous boards and commissions, including the NC Economic Development Board and Charlotte Regional Partnership.

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