The Rise of Charleston’s Innovation Economy - How it Happened

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In 2001, while the national economy was in the grips of a major recession, Charleston, SC launched an effort to attract, nurture and promote her knowledge economy. The Charleston Digital Corridor was not born out of a sense of crisis as Charleston weathered this recession better than most cities. Nor were there expensive and exhaustive reports that for the most part have proven to be marginally useful as they tell you the somewhat obvious or serve as more of an analytical resource.

The Charleston Digital Corridor was the result of citizens recognizing the subtle but growing divergence between stagnating wage levels and Charleston's rising cost of living and the need to develop a strategy to close this gap by building a high-wage economy.

Largely driven by public and institutional employment, hospitality, port-related distribution facilities and basic manufacturing businesses, wage levels were stagnating while Charleston's cost of living was experiencing a dramatic rise especially driven by housing prices.

Fast forward 10 years, Charleston has leveraged its well preserved urban historical fabric, coastal geography, legendary lifestyle and livability to build a high-wage tech and tech-related economy recognized as one of the fastest growing in the country.

Some Lessons Learned –

  • The economic landscape is changing at a faster pace than in the past - tactical, practical and measurable actions are what matter to a community as they lead to fruitful engagement followed by demonstrable results.
  • The single biggest impact on success was engaging with energetic and passionate "can do" local leaders who catalyzed community engagement by successfully executing their respective business plans while also serving as ambassadors for Charleston's tech industry.
  • Broad community consensus took a back seat to input from the tech industry followed by precise execution, constant measurement and a "quickly kill it if it does not work" atitude.
  • Dense, high amenity, "open" urban campuses are preferred by millennial tech workers to sprawling "sequestered" suburban office parks which limit professional and social interaction between like-minded professionals and mobility to the automobile.
  • Leverage "what you have" instead of wishing "what you had"
  • Celebrate small wins and being unique instead of headline grabbing announcements and trying to copy cat other communities.
  • Contrary to expert commentary about private leadership with building sustainable high wage economies, Charleston's early success has been driven largely by the public sector with input from the private sector. Charleston set the table for the growth of the tech industry through targeted legislative changes, cutting red tape and moving with the same speed the tech industry requires to become successful.