January 31, 2023
By Karen Kuchenbecker, Vice President of Operations
This year marks 25 years since I relocated to Charleston from North Carolina. Significant milestones can make me reflective, thinking back on how much I’ve changed, and how much the world has changed around me.
I have worked for CRDA nearly my entire time in Charleston. The organization was formed in the mid-1990s when the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard was slated to close. Our mandate was (and still is) to expand and diversify the local economy, with a particular focus on attracting higher paying jobs to the region.
Reflecting back to the late 90s when I first moved here and joined CRDA, there is no doubt this region has come a long way.
More Money to Spend
In the late 1990s, local wages barely matched the SC average and were 22% below the national average. Fast forward to today, and we have a diverse and expanding job market. Locals now make 10% above the state average and are gaining ground on the national average. For some jobs (manufacturing and healthcare), wages are ABOVE the national average.
On a per household level, local incomes surpassed the U.S. average for the first time in 2018. Higher incomes bring more buying power – money for a new car, to start a business, to purchase a home. With more money circulating, local governments can afford more teachers, build parks and libraries, and expand public services.
From Brain Drain to Brain Gain
In the late 90s, our region had limited opportunities for a professional career. After graduating college, many young people left Charleston for larger cities with better job prospects, leaving just 25% of area residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Today, Charleston is recognized as a talent magnet. With a wide range of employment options, approximately 41% of residents now have at least a bachelor’s degree vs. 35% for the nation. In addition to the economic benefits of a more educated population, higher education levels can lead to lower crime rates, better overall health, and increased civic engagement.
Living the Good Life
It’s not unusual to pine for a time when life was less complicated, the pace was slower, the roads less crowded. But simpler does not necessarily mean better.
A quarter century ago, a significant portion of our population had very few opportunities to build a better future for themselves and their families. In 1997, approximately 16% of area residents lived below the poverty level, significantly higher than the national rate of 13%. Today, the local poverty rate has dropped below the national rate of 12.8%. Although we still have work to do, more area residents are moving up the economic ladder.
For those fortunate enough to have discretionary income, the local dining and entertainment scene was limited 25 years ago. Back in the 90s, there were relatively few full-service restaurants. Now we have hundreds of options. It was also common to travel to Charlotte or Atlanta to see a popular performer or theatrical production. Today, there are at least a dozen local venues featuring national-caliber musicians and other performing artists. It’s impossible to be bored with so much to see and do!
Where Will We Be in Another 25 Years?
As we flip the calendar to 2023, I hope you will join me in celebrating Charleston’s progress and to consider ways we can make our community even stronger. How can we buoy the local economy to withstand future economic downturns? What steps do we take to ensure more residents have access to good paying job and career opportunities? How do we sustain our success while protecting the environment and maintaining our unique sense of place?
What is the Charleston we want to see when we reflect 25 years from now?