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Greenville Business Magazine

A State of Transformation: Capital Investment, Migration Changing the Face of South Carolina

Oct 04, 2023 01:07PM ● By David Caraviello

The entire scope of South Carolina’s past and present can be encapsulated in one drive through metro Greenville, which takes about 25 minutes but spans 120 years. From the site of the former Woodside Mill, once the largest cotton mill under one roof in America, it’s an easy trip through the West End and down White Horse Road to Lockheed Martin, which in January rolled out the first F-16 fighter plane built in Greenville.

Similar changes are happening all over a Palmetto State that for decades was known primarily for agriculture and textile production. A drive from Charleston to Greenville tells the story — a tourist-driven port city morphing into a manufacturing hub with the arrival of Boeing and Volvo, a swampy capital landing a $2 billion investment from Scout Motors, BMW transforming the Upstate with billions in investment, the Interstate 85 corridor between Spartanburg and Greenville becoming an industrial center to rival any in the region.

All this in a state that, within the span of many residents’ lifetimes, was once decimated by the loss of an Upstate textile industry that fled overseas for cheaper labor, and the scuttling of a naval base and shipyard that had employed 22,000 people and been an economic powerhouse in Charleston. In those dark days of the early 1990s, it may have seemed fanciful indeed to think that in 2022 alone, the South Carolina Department of Commerce would attract a record $10.27 billion in capital investment, capped by the $3.5 billion Redwood Materials automotive battery recycling plant to be located north of Charleston.

“We have such a strong reputation for being a business-friendly state,” said Ashely Teasdel, South Carolina’s deputy secretary of commerce. “And I think there is strength in us being a small state, because that allows us to be very nimble, and get things done very quickly for companies.” 

Capital investment is only half of the picture. People are also flocking to the Palmetto State — some to work at these new manufacturing plants, some to retire, others to escape high property taxes or enjoy a better quality of life. South Carolina had the sixth-largest population change among all states from 2020 to 2021, adding 59,976 residents over that span, according to the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. Narrow that down to domestic net in-migration, and South Carolina ranks fourth. And South Carolina ranked No. 1 in population growth rate change from before to after the pandemic, said Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist with the Darla Moore School of Business at USC.

Those gains in population are evident in the string of large, master-planned communities that have been carved into former timber forests in Dorchester and Berkeley counties. They’re evident in the scarcity of available housing in greater Greenville and Charleston. They’re evident in a Myrtle Beach area that experienced the third-largest percentage of population growth among all U.S. metro areas from 2020 to 2021, and in the South Carolina counties south of Charlotte, which added 31,381 new residents over that same span.

“Part of the population migration is because there are more employment opportunities for younger workers,” Von Nessen said. “The other major element that we’ve seen in recent years is the retiree population that is relocating to South Carolina, coming largely from the New England area.”

In 1992, South Carolina’s population was 3.6 million, and a textile industry that employed thousands of workers was accelerating toward an inevitable collapse. By 2022 the state’s population had ballooned to 5.3 million, and advanced manufacturing had entrenched itself as a cornerstone of the South Carolina economy. And more is coming — more manufacturing investment, more jobs, more people. The journey that took the Palmetto State from Woodside Mill to F-16 fighter jets continues, picking up new residents all along the way.

From BMW to Scout Motors

The day that BMW opened its new manufacturing plant in Spartanburg County in 1994 was also the first day of deer season, so none of the employees showed up.

It’s not true, of course. But that canard remains indicative of how many outside the state viewed the idea of advanced manufacturing in South Carolina. “It’s just an outright lie. But it’s been repeated so many times that people think it’s true,” said Mark Vitner, a former senior economist for Wells Fargo who now runs Piedmont Crescent Capital in Charlotte. “It’s just simply folks who are upset that businesses are expanding in a nonunion state. That’s really all it comes down to.”

By any measure, BMW Plant Spartanburg in Greer has been wildly successful, producing over 6 million vehicles and growing into the largest automobile exporter in the United States. And many of the factors that helped fuel BWM’s rise — a technical college system that connects workers with jobs, the presence of Inland Port Greer linking Port of Charleston with the Upstate, available land, and relatively low operating costs — have also played a role in the Palmetto State’s more recent advanced manufacturing boom, anchored by the arrival of Boeing to North Charleston in 2011.

“BMW was the one of the major forces that helped transition South Carolina’s economy away from its long-held dependence on textiles and apparel,” Vitner said. “What BMW did more than anything else was prove to other manufacturers that you could make a high-quality product in the state of South Carolina. Because they export seven out of 10 vehicles, they’re having to produce to an incredibly high standard. And without the success of BMW, I don’t think South Carolina would have gotten Boeing. I don’t think it would have would have gotten Volvo.”

The employment growth rate in South Carolina between 2010 and 2020 was 17.8 percent, Von Nessen said. In advanced manufacturing over that same 10-year period, it was 89 percent. For automotive manufacturing, it was 186 percent. “Advanced manufacturing has been the primary driver of economic growth for South Carolina in the 21st century, and especially over the last 10 years,” he added. “The growth has been incredibly strong, especially in the automotive industry.”

That much was evident in the $10.27 billion in capital investment that the South Carolina Department of Commerce reported for 2022, led by the $3.5 billion Redwood Materials electric vehicle battery recycling plant outside Charleston, and a $1.7 billion BMW EV battery assembly plant in Woodruff. That 2022 total doesn’t include the $2 billion Scout Motors plant announced in March, which will build all-electric vehicles at a site near Blythewood. South Carolina beat out 74 sites across the country for Scout, Teasdel said, and the Volkswagen subsidiary also received $1.29 billion in incentives from the state.

Incentives are a tried-and-true formula to lure investment to the Palmetto State. BMW received $131 million in incentives from South Carolina to prevent the carmaker from instead locating in Nebraska, USC economics professor Doug Woodward wrote in a National Tax Association journal in 1994. Financial concessions to lure Boeing to North Charleston could top $800 million over 30 years, The Seattle Times wrote in 2010. South Carolina awarded Volvo a reported $200 million in incentives, largely in the form of infrastructure improvements, to help the manufacturer choose its current Berkeley County site over another in Georgia.

“South Carolina is business friendly,” Vitner said, “and makes it relatively easy to set up shop.”

Teasdel said companies are typically deep in research on potential sites before South Carolina officials are even aware the state is being considered. “It’s all about the process of elimination for them,” she added. Teasdel said factors like port availability, supply chains, and shovel-ready sites with utility access can matter more than the incentives South Carolina offers to manufacturers, which include credits that can “completely eliminate a company’s corporate income tax liability for up to 10, or in some cases 15 years,” according to the S.C. Department of Commerce website.

“We find that the incentive piece is really not even the driving factor when it comes to companies looking to make a location decision,” Teasdel said. “It’s a part of the process. But I think from an incentive perspective, we are just as competitive as the other states, and it typically never comes down to money. It comes down to sites and people. Do I have a place to go, and do I have a workforce that’s going to sustain my company for decades? That’s really where the decision is coming into play.”

The Scout plant is notable, Von Nessen said, because it incorporates the Columbia area into an advanced manufacturing cluster that’s otherwise based largely in the Lowcountry and Upstate. In addition to the manufacturing presence, Interstate 26 from Charleston to Spartanburg is dotted with huge distribution centers operated by the likes of Amazon and Walmart, which find South Carolina’s location ideal for transporting consumer goods throughout the Southeast.

Location was the key for Redwood Materials, whose $3.5 billion investment deal is the largest in state history. “We made a lot of investments in Camp Hall,” Teasdel said of the industrial park the company chose for its site. “That was very attractive to them, because they wanted to be fast-moving in their decision. The total time from the first visit outreach to us to their announcement was approximately one year. They were looking at other Southeastern states, but ultimately, they chose us because of the proximity to their customers. They said the port was really important to them. And they really wanted to be in a state that had a business-friendly climate.”

No question, the capital investment totals are impressive. The top 10 investments in 2022 will combine to create over 14,000 jobs, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce, 1,500 at Redwood Materials alone. But how do those investments benefit off-the-beaten path locales like Allendale County, the poorest in South Carolina with a median household income of $31,800? Teasdel pointed out that in March, Tin Thahn Group Americas announced it would open a $68 million tire manufacturing plant in Fairfax that would create 1,031 jobs.

“That’s going to be completely transformational for Allendale,” Teasdel said. “Commerce also administers the state’s community development block grants, which provides grants to local governments so they can improve their quality of life, but also make them more marketable to help with investment. When we have wins in the state, I do think there’s a benefit to the entire state. And when it comes to areas where you may not hear about big wins as often, there’s still work being done. Because we have a responsibility to keep making investments and make sure that county is preparing to grow so they can be more marketable in the future.”

Pocketbook issues and politics

Amanda Hamet moved to Greenville in 1998, back when the city’s now-iconic Reedy River Falls were obscured by the four-lane Camperdown Bridge and overgrown with kudzu. When she started selling real estate a few years later, her clients were overwhelmingly locals outside of the occasional employees transferring in to work at Michelin or BMW.

Things are very different now. “It’s just changed dramatically,” said Hamet, now senior vice president of sales and broker-in-charge at Coldwell Banker Caine, Greenville’s largest residential real estate agency. “Almost every agent I talk to is working with or has worked recently with somebody moving to the area. I had an agent in my office this morning working with somebody from New York, and they were going out to look at houses. That’s a very common story now as I engage with agents in our office.”

The Greenville area of today, anchored by its refurbished Falls Park and its buzzy downtown full of notable restaurants, has become a haven for transplants from the Northeast, California, and the Midwest seeking a high quality of life at a low cost of living. Greenville County expects to add 222,000 new residents by 2040, which would increase its population to nearly 750,000. The pandemic supercharged a migration of cash-rich big city residents to places like Greenville, where they could escape the crowds, find a plethora of cultural and recreational opportunities, and buy a house for a fraction of what it would cost them back home.

South Carolina’s population increase of nearly 60,000 residents from 2020 to 2021 stands in stark contrast to states like California and New York that are bleeding residents. The South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office projects Horry County to add nearly 100,000 residents between 2020 and 2030, followed by York County at 75,000 and Spartanburg County at around 70,000.

“Warmer climate and lower taxes seem to me two of the biggest drivers,” said Gibbs Knotts, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at College of Charleston. “I’d much rather be in a state that people want to move to compared to one where there’s less migration. It’s good to have a place that’s vibrant and where people want to live. I’m not saying it doesn’t create problems, but it means that it’s an attractive place, it has a lot of amenities, and it has a lot of reasons why people want to be there.”

The work-from-home movement has been transformational for South Carolina, as high earners suddenly freed to work from anywhere can now relocate to Lake Keowee or Kiawah Island for part or all of the year. Cash buyers, who are less affected by interest rate increases and flooded the state in the buying frenzy that followed the lifting of pandemic lockdowns, remain common in metro Greenville, Hamet said. 

But the transplants flocking to the Palmetto State are, by and large, not young — two out of every three people moving to South Carolina are over the age of 55, Von Nessen said. By 2030, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimates that the state’s 65-plus population will be twice the size of the 18-64 population, which promises to present some challenges for all those industrial sites needing employees. In 1970, a bar graph of the state’s population by age range looked like a triangle; in 2030, it will resemble a cylinder with a slightly tucked middle.

“Quality of life is defined differently for different people. It’s clear that the cost of living, for example, makes a major difference. So, if you’re looking at changes in tax policies and overall cost of living, that’s going to be a major factor in where people want to live, particularly if they’re more likely to be on a fixed income and they’re retiring,” Von Nessen said. “Definitely, from a financial standpoint, individuals are looking at pocketbook issues when they’re deciding to relocate. There’s no question the Southeast typically offers a lower cost of living, and often offers lower taxes as well in certain cases. That’s all part of the package when a family or an individual is looking to make a location decision.”

South Carolina’s median home cost of $381,000 stands in stark contrast to the $498,000 in New Jersey or the $531,000 in New York, according to Bankrate. There’s a similar disparity in property taxes; South Carolina’s annual taxes on a median home price were fifth-lowest nationally at $1,024, according to WalletHub, while New Jersey topped the list at $8,797.

“Relatively speaking, where people are moving from, we’re still an affordable market,” said Will Jenkinson, broker-in-charge at Carolina One New Homes in Charleston. “It’s shocking for people to hear that locally. But if you’re in New Jersey right now, and you see what we pay in property taxes on an annual basis in Charleston, they ask — is this a month? Or a year? When it’s all said and done, the cost of living is baked into it. That’s the true affordability. It’s not just sales price. It’s all the factors that you go into when you’re making your mortgage payment each month or paying your tax bill. It’s all one baked-in number.”

There may also be another reason for the flood of migration to South Carolina, one that’s more difficult to quantify. “I sold a house to a couple from Seattle, and they basically moved here for political reasons,” Kathy Rogoff, an agent with Allen Tate Realtors, told Post and Courier Greenville in May. Is South Carolina attracting new residents who want to be around like-minded people politically? Economists refer to such a trend as “voting with their feet,” Vitner said, although it may take the results of the next presidential election to determine whether South Carolina is truly pulling red residents out of blue states.

“Folks are moving away from the states that have more activist public policies,” Vitner added. “I wouldn’t think that South Carolina would ever emulate California and say we’re going to eliminate gasoline-powered cars by 2035. I can’t see South Carolina ever doing something like that. And so, I do think that California and New York are probably chasing away more free market-oriented folks who just don’t want to be told what car they should buy or what kind of house they should buy. So, I think that’s part of what’s driving the migration to South Carolina.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, Knotts adds, that Horry County is the fastest-growing county in South Carolina. “They’re seeing off-the-charts growth, and they’re one of the most conservative places in the state,” he added. “That area is particularly attractive, even though folks are moving from blue states. But Charleston County is a little bit different and has a little more political diversity. You do have to be open to the idea of living in a red state to make the decision to move here, but I think it probably differs depending on where people choose to move.”

Punching above its weight

The dramatic increases in population and capital investment experienced by South Carolina are part of a trend impacting the entire region. Of the five states that experienced larger population increases from 2020 to 2021, only one (Arizona) was outside of the Southeast. South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are now contributing more to the national gross domestic product than the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston, Bloomberg reported. South Carolina and Georgia in particular have made huge pushes into the automotive and electric vehicle industries. 

But the transformation has been most striking in South Carolina, which does not have a major metropolitan area and once faced doubts about its ability to pivot from textiles to advanced manufacturing. The state announced 50,777 advanced manufacturing jobs between 2017 and 2022, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. “South Carolina is clearly punching well above its weight,” said Vitner, the economist. 

Vitner expresses some concern about what he calls a “gold rush mentality” in electric vehicles, wondering if all the projects recruited to South Carolina in that sector will ultimately pan out. But the state has built up so many advantages in areas like infrastructure and workforce development, Von Nessen added, that it’s well-positioned to continue to attract both international and domestic investment in the future. “We’re very bullish about the long-run outlook for South Carolina’s economic growth,” the USC research economist said. 

The impact of the flood of migration washing over South Carolina can be much more personal — in the form of different regional accents heard in the grocery store, different license plates in the driveway next door, different neighbors from “off,” as the natives like to say in the Lowcountry. Will all those newcomers erode the things that make South Carolina unique? Knotts, the College of Charleston professor, doesn’t think so.

“There’s a lot of pride in this state,” he said. “The state flag, you still see that waving. I think that will continue, because people are attracted to what’s unique about this state — the hospitality, the unique food, the landscape from the mountains to the coast. It’s like the license plates once said: ‘Smiling faces, beautiful places.’ I think that’s going to hold up, even with all the in-migration.”

In Greenville, in many ways the epicenter of this grand transition that South Carolina is in the midst of, Hamet sees all the new residents as part of Greenville’s inevitable path. “Think about it — Greenville took a stream in the middle of downtown and made it a destination. Clearly, a lot of thought has been put into the plans for Greenville. They’ve clearly thought about the what-ifs and the growth,” the real estate executive said.

“My two young boys are both in school, and the class sizes have not increased,” she added. “My oldest son is in a class of 18 kids, in a public school. That’s pretty remarkable. So, there is growth, and I know it feels like a lot. But it’s not uncomfortable or poorly planned, in my opinion.”