Only a bold move will bring big biz to the Holy City 

Here Comes the Boom

Could Charleston become the new economic powerhouse of the South? I asked that question a few weeks back, and when I did, I was nearly blasted off these pages by people who've lived here a long time and think they know better. Sure, the Holy City has long been a popular cultural center and vacation destination, but a boomtown? At the time, I pointed out that the Charleston metro area was one of the few places in the country with more total jobs today than before the recession hit — 8,460 more jobs to be exact — and how that was a pretty remarkable stat.

And we're not just getting more jobs. We're getting more people. I'm relatively new to Charleston, and when I rave about the Lowcountry's population surge on my morning show on WTMA 1250 AM, our news guy's eyes glaze over. For many, the Holy City's been a people magnet for a long time, so no one is too amped up over today's population boom.

Be that as it may, Charleston is growing faster than ever before. While the metro area population grew by 8.3 percent between 1990 and 2000, it grew by 21 percent from 2000 to 2010. And from 2010 to 2012 — just two years — Charleston grew by five percent, putting us on track for an even faster growth rate than we saw in the last decade. That latest spurt has totaled out to a staggering 33,000 new residents moving to the tri-county area, and with it, the rules of real estate have been reshaped. Ryland Homes, for example, has raised the base price on its new construction homes by $13,000 since October. Want another example? In March 2012, it took an average of 118 days on the market to sell your home. Today, it only takes 87.

Yes, the real estate market nationally is coming to life again, but Charleston's is on fire. In March, over 1,000 homes sold, the first time the 1,000-home benchmark has been breached since March 2007, before the start of the Great Recession. If the migration continues, some think the housing market here could even begin to hit milestones that haven't been hit since 2006.

One of the reasons we have such a high growth rate is because this is a great place to work and do business. In part, it's because we won the Boeing beauty contest in which we competed for the right to trade $1.2 billion in incentives for $1 billion in business investment by Boeing. A killer lobbying job and lots of cash got us here, and we're lucky to have them. Thanks to Boeing, Google, Blackbaud, and our tech startups, the business world has taken notice of the Lowcountry. What we do next will determine whether we'll be a great tourist town with shipping and some side industries or a true economic powerhouse.

However, recruiting a few more Boeings at a billion dollars a clip is too pricey. The dance with the air giant took a decade, too mind-numbingly slow to take true advantage of the momentum we have now. The region and the state are perfectly positioned for a breakout, but only if we are willing to do something big, something that will make us irresistible to businesses. That something should be the elimination of the state income tax.

I'm not talking about the formation of a committee to study the elimination of the income tax at some future date, but a full-on drop-kick of the whole thing. That kind of bold move would get us the love and attention from the business world that is turning Texas into a new economic frontier. Once the state income tax is no more, South Carolina should be heavily marketed to businesses large and small who already find the Palmetto State attractive for its regulatory simplicity.

At the same time, the South Carolina coast as a whole, from Hilton Head to Charleston to Myrtle Beach, should be marketed to baby boomer retirees in direct competition with Florida, an ugly state that has dominated the retiree market for way too long. The resulting boom from those two moves would be the stuff of economic legend.

If our governor and legislative leaders truly want to see South Carolina succeed, that's what they'd do before North Carolina does it first. Or we can sit around for two more decades, twiddling our thumbs, and hoping something big happens.

Tara Servatius hosts the morning show on Charleston's 1250 AM WTMA. E-mail her at tara@wtma.com. Follow Servatius on Facebook at facebook.com/TaraServatiusOnline and on Twitter at @TaraServatius.


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