Charleston area is rising on list of Best Places

Charleston Post and Courier
May 1, 2001

Greater Charleston’s rapid economic growth made it a better place to find a job last year than in 1999, according to a new study. But the downside is that the region lost ground in the all-important high-technology sector.

The area defined as Charleston and North Charleston was rated 47th among the 294 U.S. metropolitan areas that made the cut in the third annual Forbes-Milken Institute Best Places Ranking.

The region came in at No. 114 in 1999.

The rankings measure eight categories, including growth in wages, jobs and high-tech output. The results are based on federal data from 1999 and 2000.

“The list shows where the growth is in the U.S. economy today – and where business is booming,” the Milken Institute said in a statement.

Having vaulted 67 spots, greater Charleston is among the top five metro areas that made the biggest strides over 1999.

“The good news is that job growth and wage growth in the region has been very strong,” said Perry Wong, an economist with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken. “Those are the primary reasons why the ranking went up so much.”

At the same time, the area’s tech sector is lagging. For instance, the Forbes-Milken indicator for high-tech output in Charleston fell to 144 last year from 103 in 1999.

“That’s what I’d call the bad news,” Wong said. “That means compared to other regions, Charleston has not grown as strong. In fact, it has been weakening. That’s one of the biggest drawbacks.”

In recent years, state and local officials have made high-paying high-tech jobs a top economic development priority. Indeed, just last week local industry recruiters were calling on firms in San Jose, Calif., which earned the No. 1 spot in the latest Forbes-Milken study.

A solid technology industry is “a bridge” that needs to be built in the Lowcountry, Wong said.

“That’s how we will tie what’s happening now to what will happen in the future,” he said. “Certainly, technology will take us there. That’s an area Charleston really needs to improve. To be fair, it’s not something you can do overnight.”

While improving the education system is a key part of the long-term solution, Wong added, Charleston also must work at keeping its best and brightest young workers from moving to Atlanta, Research Triangle and other high-tech meccas.

“I think that’s a more immediate concern … It’s equally important to keep these talents living in the region and offer them opportunity,” he said.

David Ginn, chief executive officer of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, said it is clear that “our ranking for high-tech concentration does need improvement.”

“However, this is the area we’re hoping to influence with our new plan and focus on technology-intensive industry,” Ginn said.

At the same time, the region’s image can only benefit from a largely favorable plug in a widely read business magazine.

“I think it helps primarily with the perception out in the marketplace that we’re a good place for business. The key word is perception because perception can be very powerful in the business world,” Ginn said.

“Maybe a high mark in Forbes helps break a tie or helps a company feel more confident about investing here than some other place,” he added. “It’s not something you take to the bank, but perception is important.”

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