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Greenville Business Magazine

The First 10 Years

By Jason Zacher

September 1, 2009. The Great Recession was in full swing and the political influence of the Upstate was waning after Gov. Carroll Campbell, House Speaker David Wilkins, and Senator Verne Smith had exited state public life.

The region—long tied together by Interstate 85 and a forward-thinking business community—needed a new voice. Ten Upstate chambers of commerce banded together to create the Upstate Chamber Coalition: A unified voice of business to push a growth agenda in Columbia and Washington.

Today, the combined voice of 12 local chambers, thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of employees has changed the political landscape for Upstate business. We have shown that a grassroots army of small business owners unified behind a common agenda can achieve tremendous things.

One major state business said in 2014: “The Coalition is our most important partner in the (Statehouse) lobby.” The next year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the “Upstate Chamber Coalition is a regional model for the country.”

At the press conference 10 years ago, the Coalition’s supporters said they would pass pro-business legislation, create jobs, raise per-capita income and support economic development. The idea of combining forces, the strength of Upstate businesses and the passion of our investors has achieved just that:

• We led efforts to bring Southwest Airlines to GSP. 
• We helped lead a coalition that secured new, substantial and recurring infrastructure funding. 
• We fought for funding for widening I-85 to the North Carolina border and expanding the I-85/I-385 interchange. 
• We were successful in bringing the University of South Carolina Medical School to Greenville. 
• We were instrumental in securing support for legislation that has sparked our region’s craft brewing economy (creating a brand-new, $650 million industry). 
• We passed the Angel Investment Act that opened new funding sources to our entrepreneurs. 
• We broke a key logjam in Washington in 2016 to ensure a federal budget appropriation for deepening the Port of Charleston. 
• We expanded our workforce by leading the charge to bring folks with minor criminal charges back to employment. 

Several of our member chambers have created candidate schools to train a new generation of public officials for elected and appointed offices. 

In addition to the pro-business legislation wins, per capita incomes are up nearly 34 percent since the Coalition was formed. Job growth is booming: During any given month, there are almost 10,000 more jobs than unemployed workers in the Upstate. Upstate counties are frequently listed as some of the best in the world to locate a business.

If you live in Greenville, Spartanburg, Greer, Anderson, Greenwood, Cherokee County, Laurens County, Easley, Simpsonville, Clemson, Fountain Inn or Oconee County, our success has been your success. 

What could be more important than our regional partnership has been outreach to other groups across South Carolina. We partner with the Upstate SC Alliance and the S.C. Economic Developers Association to ensure we are enacting policies that will help them recruit new business. We work closely with the S.C. Chamber, the Charleston Metro Chamber, the Columbia Chamber and the S.C. Manufacturers’ Alliance, among other groups. Together, we are working to bury the regional distrust that has held our state back since its founding. 

The Upstate Chamber Coalition could not have achieved what it has without your advocacy and the hard work of the staff who has worked for us over the past decade: John DeWorken, Sunnie Harmon DeWorken, Mark Cothran, Elizabeth Edwards Martin, Katie Busbee and Madison Hall. I also need to recognize the many college interns who have done amazing work in policy research and communications for us: Megan Campbell, Michelle Rash, Ashley Young, Avery Wannemacher, Zachary Heltsley, Elizabeth Noland, Walker Seman, Stephanie Tutunjian, Catherine Demaret and Matt Phillips. These 16 people have been laser-focused on building our business climate and preserving the Upstate’s economic progress.

Over the past decade, we have had innumerable volunteer business leaders and chamber presidents who have pushed single issues or led our Coalition in new directions. We couldn’t possibly list them all here, but the staffers in the previous paragraph thank each of you.

As we gear up for our 10th Anniversary Policy Agenda, the Upstate’s voice of business is stronger than ever. September and October are when we reach out to business leaders across the region to learn what policy issues impact your business. Please reach out to us. 

Though we are only 10 years old, it has been one powerful and successful decade. The next 10 will be even better thanks to business leaders like you.