Every study, survey or comprehensive plan done of the Charleston region’s economic growth potential during the coming years has identified the need to attract additional knowledge-based industry to the area. In fact, the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, Center for Technology Innovation and other key economic development groups have luring high-tech business to the area a priority goal.
The latest initiative in the tech-based arena, just underway, is the Charleston Digital Corridor. Spearheaded by the City of Charleston’s economic development department, the goal is to build public-private partnerships that will support and nurture knowledge-based enterprise on portions of the Charleston peninsula.
The Digital Corridor is the brainchild of Ernest Andrade, assistant economic development officer for the City of Charleston. Andrade came to city government in 1981 as annexation officer and was asked two years ago by Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to coordinate industrial and corporate recruitment. “As I read through all of the various planning documents on economic development and talked with businessmen and development officials, I realized Charleston has all the pieces in place to attract knowledge-based firms to the city,” Andrade explains.
“We have great quality of life, an abundance of higher education institutions, an excellent telecommunications infrastructure, and perhaps most important, the availability of real estate to house these high-tech firms,” he adds.
Andrade says be wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about the endless possibilities for knowledge-based growth in the area. Still, he cautions that the Digital Corridor concept will only be realized if it is championed by the private sector.
“The city’s role will be to facilitate public-private partnerships and clear some of the local legislative barriers which have hampered high-tech growth in the past,” he says. “We want to help create an environment where technology oriented companies will thrive.”
According to Andrade, there is a widespread perception that commercial real estate on the Charleston peninsula is prohibitively expensive. “In reality, the cost for a business to locate downtown is comparable to most suburban areas,” Andrade emphasizes. The Corridor initiative would seek to place knowledge-based firms in buildings or portions of buildings not already occupied or targeted for retail. Andrade plans to meet soon with local real estate leaders and hopes to gain their support.
“There is a lot of space on the second and third floors of buildings on the Peninsula which would be ideal for the types of firms we are talking about,” Andrade says.
A key priority of the Charleston Digital Corridor is to make life easier for new high-tech firms thinking of locating to Charleston. Some measures already adopted include:
* Reduced business license fees for qualified software companies. “When we looked at the ordinance, we discovered that software companies had the highest fee of any type business. We amended the category and reduced the fee,” says Andrade.
* Five-year real estate and property tax abatement for qualified companies.
* Preferred parking in nearby garages.
* No city fees associated with renovation of qualified buildings.
* Streamlined permitting with the assignment of a dedicated project manager.
Andrade says the corridor hopes to incorporate additional components in the future including deferred loans for technology equipment related to company mission; links to higher education and employment opportunities in the Charleston area; and identification of commercial space available at competitive or slightly below market rates through the private sector.
“All of these incentives will require support from the community,” he adds. “Our role will be to coordinate the effort and let knowledge-based entrepreneurs have one place they can come and find out who to talk to about expediting their development needs.
Andy Brack, managing partner of Blue Maggie LLC, a local high-tech communications management firm, is excited about the Charleston Digital Corridor. “The challenge for the next decade will be taking advantage of the huge opportunity for technology growth which exists,” Brack says. The Digital Corridor is exactly the type of initiative we should be pursuing because it is aimed at attracting small high-tech firms who do lots of business out of town, bringing dollars into the economy, and are not a drain on the area’s natural resources.”
Brack, recently appointed by Gov. Jim Hodges to the Southern Governors’ Association Advisory Committee on Research, Development, and Technology, admits the area still has work to do in attracting knowledge-based companies. ” Public education needs to be improved, air fares are too high and our universities must focus even more on technology education in order to provide a workforce pool for technology firms. Still, the quality of life in this area is going to attract people and we need to take full advantage by building on that strength,” Brack says.