FLORENCE, S.C. – Approximately 10 years ago, counties across the state were experiencing a period of hard economic times, sky-high unemployment rates and little to no growth.
This was a nationwide epidemic, and the North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA) region – Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties – were the hardest hit. In January 2010, the region saw its unemployment rate peak at 15.8 percent. For reference, the highest regional unemployment rate over the past 30 years before 2010 was 12.8 percent in January 1994.
“We have made great strides as a region since that time,” NESA Executive Committee Chairman Yancey McGill said. “Looking at where we were and looking at where we are now, is just remarkable. This region is flourishing, and it has become a destination for companies across the world, meaning more jobs, higher wages and just better opportunities in general for folks across the region.”
In just nine years, the unemployment rate has fallen a total of 12.2 percentage points to 3.6 percent as of April of 2019. Over that span, the region has seen the unemployment fall as low as 3.4 percent in May 2018.
In November 2009, according to the Morning News, five counties in the NESA region – Chesterfield (17.4 percent), Dillon (17.7 percent), Marion (20.7 percent), Marlboro (21 percent) and Williamsburg (15.2 percent) – were ranked within the top 20 counties in the state with the highest unemployment rate and two – Marion and Marlboro – were ranked within the top 4. The region’s remaining counties – Darlington (13 percent), Florence (12.1 percent), Georgetown (13 percent) and Horry (12.2 percent) – were all within the top 30.
These numbers have drastically changed since that time. According to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW) website, the following is a list of unemployment rates as of April 2019:
- Chesterfield – 2.9 percent (down 14.5 percentage points).
- Darlington – 3.5 percent (down 9.5 percentage points).
- Dillon – 4.2 percent (down 13.5 percentage points).
- Florence – 3.1 percent (down 9.0 percentage points).
- Georgetown – 4.0 percent (down 9.0 percentage points).
- Horry – 3.6 percent (down 8.6 percentage points).
- Marion – 4.6 percent (down 16.1 percentage points).
- Marlboro – 4.5 percent (down 16.5 percentage points).
- Williamsburg – 4.4 percent (down 10.8 percentage points).
One benefit of this lower unemployment rate can be seen in the increase in employee wages.
Average annual wages increased 16.4 percent since 2010, as more and more job opportunities have become available. Companies are paying more to not only get the best employees but also to keep the employees they already have. On average, workers in the NESA region made $36,122 annually in 2018.
“It is our hope that as we recruit more industry to the region, wages will continue to rise and eventually meet or surpass the state average,” McGill said. “Manufacturing operations are key to this growth.”
The highest-paying sectors in the region are utilities ($85,048), the management of company enterprises ($65,657) and manufacturing ($54,649).
Since 2008, the region has seen more than $3.9 billion in capital investment and the creation of nearly 18,000 jobs. If that’s not enough to show the region’s growth, nearly $1.5 billion in capital investment and 3,000 jobs of that total happened over the past two years.
As the unemployment rate has plummeted and wages have risen, the region’s overall population has grown as well.
From 2010-2017, 55,356 new residents located in the region. That’s a 7.8 percent increase over that span. Comparatively, the state had a population increase of 8.4 percent and the country increased by 5.3 percent. The region’s population is expected to reach 787,298 by the end of 2019, a 2.7 percent increase.
Most of the region’s growth is centered around the Myrtle Beach MSA, which, for the fourth consecutive year in 2019, was named the second fastest growing MSA in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau.
So what’s driving this growth? What’s drawing industry to this region? And what is the plan to maintain these upward trends?
McGill said an obvious key factor is the economic growth we are experiencing as a country.
“Just look at the country,” he said. “We are seeing numbers like we have never seen before across the economic landscape, and this funnels down to us, but we are also becoming a destination on our own. I mean we have seen $1.5 billion in capital investment in just the past two years. That’s exciting.”
He added the S.C. Ports Authority’s Inland Port Dillon has been a huge contributor to the region’s growth.
“We reported during our annual meeting this year that 20 of our active projects were directly related to the port,” he said. “The part that most people don’t realize is that some of these projects wouldn’t have even considered our region without this inland port, and the impacts go far beyond the borders of Dillon County.”
Inland Port Dillon opened in April 2018, and on its one-year anniversary SCPA tweeted that it had handled 24,423 rail moves since its fiscal year began in July 2018. The port serves as a point on the CSX inter-model network with direct rail access to the Port of Charleston. The facility grounds containers and is a point for termination and origination of empty containers.
Regionally there are also several local projects that have shined a positive light on the area and in turn attracted people to this region, including the city of Florence, the city of Lake City and the city of Hartsville’s downtown revitalization projects.
“We are hearing more and more that an available workforce is becoming the No. 1 issue across the economic development landscape,” McGill said. “Several site selection consultants have told us that a quality of place has become more important. Our region is ahead of the game in trying to improve in this area and, in turn, attracting people and creating a larger workforce.”
Training that workforce is also extremely important, McGill said.
“Not only do we need to attract a workforce, but we need to train them,” he said. “Within the last several years, our region has really taken a close look at this and improved vastly.”
McGill mentioned the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology Center (SiMT), Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, Francis Marion University’s (FMU) new industrial engineering program, Coastal Carolina University and the recently announced Continuum Education Center in Lake City.
“All of our region’s colleges and universities have really taken the ball and ran with it,” he said. “Moving forward, it is our job to work with our county partners to showcase these assets and all of our region’s successes to companies seeking a new location.”
Lastly, the region has seen a slew of speculative building announcements within the past couple years. Since the beginning of 2018, six such buildings have been announced or constructed throughout the region: Dillon (2), Florence, Georgetown, Marion, and Williamsburg County. Sizes ranging from 50,000 square feet all the way up to 373,100 square feet.
“These counties are being proactive,” McGill said. “The No. 1 reason we are ruled out of projects is a lack of adequate buildings. We can’t compete for projects if we are being ruled out before they even get a chance to look at our communities.”
McGill said he is excited about the progress this region has made over the past several years, and he is looking forward to what comes next.
Andrew Golden is the marketing director for the North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA).