From Looms and Weavers to Life Sciences & Mobility: GADC Laser-Focused on Future
By John C. Stevenson
Photos by Greenville Headshots
With a 20th anniversary quickly approaching and its first economic impact study hot off the press, the Greenville Area Development Corp. is celebrating its history and accomplishments, while continuing to evolve to attract cutting-edge businesses to the area.
The GADC was formed in 2001 by Greenville County Council as a public-private venture with a mission of driving new economic development and investment in the area.
Its two decades of success have been rigorously documented for the first time, culminating in an economic-impact study prepared by Joseph C. Von Nessen, a research economist with the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business. The study was released in mid-April.
Among Von Nessen’s findings, the 21-page study revealed that capital investments and job announcements by GADC-affiliated businesses account for an estimated annual economic impact of $6 billion and almost 65,000 jobs in Greenville County. Those numbers increased to $6.9 billion and almost 83,000 jobs when Von Nessen included the entire Upstate, comprising Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Laurens, Oconee, Pickens, Cherokee, Union, Abbeville and Greenwood counties.
Bob Howard, a former GADC board chairman, noted that the agency’s history of success was built in part on a foundation of successful efforts by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, which led economic-development efforts in the county prior to the creation of the GADC.
“Historically, the Greenville Chamber served this function, and they did a good job,” Howard recalled recently. He said the chamber helped create the groundwork for the region to attract new industries, even as textile jobs were beginning to wane.
“The GADC came along at a time where it probably accelerated (the transition), but other people did great jobs in laying the foundation, with one of those institutions being the chamber,” he said.
Howard noted that Greenville County wasn’t alone during this time as it sought new ways to compete for employers looking to set up operations across South Carolina and the Southeast.
“It’s quite common for chambers of commerce, particularly in smaller cities, to serve a role like our chamber did,” he said. “As a region gets larger and larger, it’s common for some arrangement to be made like Greenville County did – a different arrangement.”
A founding member and former chairman of the GADC, Greenville businessman Ray Lattimore, president and CEO of Marketplace Professional Staffing, said that at the time, it was clear that Greenville County was ready to be home to new industries that could eventually replace sagging textiles.
“With the automotive industry taking shape, we knew we had to move from looms and weavers – we didn’t have a choice,” Lattimore said. “When BMW came and brought in all that economic development – it was a game-changer, a transformational time.”
But BMW didn’t discover the Upstate in a vacuum. According to Mark Farris, current GADC president and CEO, Greenville’s leadership as early as the 1950s recognized the need to minimize the region’s dependency on textile manufacturing, and made decisions then that would help smooth the eventual transition to newer, high-tech industries, including automobiles.
“The Greenville community – and the Upstate in general – made a decision in the ’50s to attract the machinery manufacturers,” he said. “So if you thought about textile production, a lot of communities had cloth dying, finishing and even the cut-and-sew – for the ultimate application of that cloth and material. But this area targeted the manufacturers of the machinery, and they were German, Italian, Swiss – the Western European companies that made the machines that were in the facilities. … And of course that paved the way in the 1990s, when BMW went looking for a new manufacturing facility. The community in Germany was comfortable with the Upstate, having had that exposure in the ’50s and ’60s.”
The GADC’s first home was an office in the Buck Mickel Center on the Greenville Technical College campus, and Kevin Landmesser was the employee who “turned on the lights” for the first time, on July 2, 2001.
“We were created really to be very focused on one thing, and that was to recruit companies to Greenville and to help existing ones expand,” said Landmesser, who currently serves as the GADC’s senior vice president. “It was a blank slate. It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to do a startup in economic development. … We were able to run and set up what I personally feel was something great. And I think the staff’s vision was in the beginning and continues to be to this day that we’re going to lead the way and be the best at what we do compared to our peers across South Carolina.”
Despite high aspirations, the GADC faced its share of challenges in the early years, according to Landmesser.
“We started in July, and in September, right as Jerry Howard, our first CEO, was hired at the beginning of the month, 9/11 came along. Everything – everything – really paused right around then,” he said. “We continued to get calls and everything else, but it was slower. And that gave us an opportunity to do all the building that we needed to do around systems, creating new marketing material – essentially, we were starting from scratch.”
Bill Workman would serve as the first chairman of the GADC Board of Directors. Patsy McBride, who had worked as Workman’s assistant while he was mayor of Greenville, joined the staff on a contract basis, Landmesser said.
Today, the GADC can point to its involvement with companies that have helped create almost 65,000 jobs and generate an annual estimated economic impact of $6 billion in Greenville County alone. In two decades, it has worked successfully with 325 companies; however, Farris noted that of those, 18 have either closed or merged.
Jo Hackl, an attorney with the Wyche Firm in Greenville who served as the GADC’s first board chairwoman, noted the GADC’s growing ability to generate the relevant data needed to create informed strategic plans that fit the changing needs in the Upstate.
“Over the past 10 years, GADC has become even more strategic, data-driven and global in its approach,” she said. “Mark (Farris) developed a cost-benefit analysis that measures the impact to the community of every potential project. As a result of that really data-driven process, we can be confident that any company that is recruited by GADC is going to result in a net-positive impact for Greenville County.”
Hackl also noted the GADC’s desire to conduct broad searches for a diverse range of new employers for the Upstate.
“GADC’s selection of target industries builds upon our community’s existing strengths to help create opportunities for the future,” she said. “The diversity in the mix of target industries also allows our community to nimbly navigate economic challenges and positions it well for the future.”
That type of “nimble navigation” is an integral part of the GADC’s continuing mission, according to Farris.
“I think we’re in a good position,” Farris said. “Take the automotive industry. We have a lot of assets here, not the least of which is CU-ICAR. But the automotive industry is beginning to evolve into the mobility industry. The electric vehicles will be autonomous, connected, electric and shared … so that covers a lot of ground, certainly more than just parts and pieces or assembly for an internal-combustion engine. So I think the strategic plan will take a look at some of our targeted industries – automotive, aviation, advanced materials -- and how we can best-position ourselves to take full advantage of the opportunities that occur in those targeted industries.”