Twenty years ago, it was assumed that Charlotte would be the next big East Coast economic powerhouse, the only Southern city that stood a chance of one day rivaling Atlanta economically and culturally. No other town was thought to have the stuff to pull it off. Back then, no one would have forecast that the Charleston area would see more job growth than the Charlotte region coming out of this recession.
In the months since I've moved here, I've come to suspect that few people in the Lowcountry fully realize exactly how strong the area's economic potential really is. Most everyone seems used to the idea of this area as an international cultural and vacation destination. But an up-and-coming economic powerhouse? A magnet for business expansion and relocation? Few think in those terms.
They should. And here's why. Only one economic indicator matters in post-recession America, and it is the one you almost never hear the media talk about. Perhaps that's because it is the most telling statistic, and it's so simple a sixth grader could understand it.
It is not the unemployment rate, which hides a lot about the true economic health of a place. The number that matters is an area's total employment, as in the total number of jobs it has today versus last year and the year before.
The nation as a whole is down over six million jobs since the recession, which is why we continue to experience so much economic pain. Just about every mid-sized city in the country is down thousands of jobs from its pre-recession total. But not the Charleston area.
The first time I did the math, I did a double take. I expected that like other mid-sized areas, the Charleston area would have lost thousands of jobs. To have merely broken even over the course of the recession — that is neither losing nor gaining jobs — would have been a remarkable achievement for Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties considering the state of most of the rest of the country. Instead, the tri-county area added a total of 8,460 jobs.
Compare that to Charlotte, which today still has 32,000 fewer total jobs than it did before the recession began. When you consider that Charlotte is about two times the size of the Charleston area in population, that's even more remarkable.
Compared to the rest of the country, it's like the recession never really happened here. Sure, it slowed things down economically, but the Charleston area never went backward the way the rest of the country did. This place is, for now, a harbor sheltered from the economic storm and a rare hub of actual job growth.
The job boom here — relative to the rest of the country — is driving a housing boom, with home sales up in this market a whopping 16 percent over 2012 and sales approaching what they were in 2008. In the coming weeks and months, I'll be digging deep into why that is, but there are a few things local leaders should keep in mind about these numbers before they take a victory lap.
So what lessons can the Lowcountry's leaders learn from Charlotte? The Queen City's economic growth was on fire in the 1990s when the city was still an affordable place for businesses to relocate. But a series of back-to-back city, county, and state tax hikes combined to eventually cut business growth in half. To make matters worse, Charlotte never diversified, sticking to recruiting the financial institution its leaders were comfortable with. And the town spent billions of dollars building arenas and light rail and all the big city trappings its leaders felt it needed to be world class, even as the bills for those toys came due and devastated business recruitment. These are pitfalls the Charleston area still has time to avoid.
Twenty years later, no Southern city has yet emerged to give Atlanta a run for its money. The Charleston region could if its leaders keep taxes low and push the state legislature and the governor to keep up with other states that are proposing an end to corporate and income taxes instead of just talking about being business friendly. If the Charleston area plays its cards right, the sky is the limit.
Tara Servatius is the host of the Tara on TMA morning news radio show on WTMA 1250 AM. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.