By John Lummus, president and CEO, Upstate SC Alliance
“You know what 2020 is? The year of clear vision.”
I rocked that dad joke for months. And in the early days of 2020, it was a fair outlook: The economy was buzzing, unemployment hovered around record rates — especially in the Upstate — and most projections pointed to growth.
At the Upstate SC Alliance, we launched the business recruitment year with a visit to CES (formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show) to showcase South Carolina as the place “where manufacturing and technology intersect.”
This year was also a milestone for the region’s economic development, as the Upstate SC Alliance celebrated our 20th anniversary, applauding the visionary leaders who saw value in the Upstate’s 10 counties banding together to promote our region to the world.
During our February celebration, we even invoked clips from wrestling greats to convey our region’s story: from Dusty Rhodes’ “hard times” in the textile decline to a big “Wooooo!” from high-flying Ric Flair as a symbol of our modern business success.
Then, the pandemic hit. Overnight, our vision became much blurrier. Our ability to host gatherings shifted to Zoom. Our travel calendar shelved.
In typical South Carolina spirit, though, we’ve responded and are rebounding. In looking back on this disruptive year, I’ve taken stock of some key themes.
Manufacturing makes a strong core
South Carolina is home to manufacturing facilities for world-class brands and the component suppliers who help them make products we use every day. And that’s been a strong foundation in a time of turbulence to the travel, hospitality and personal service industries.
The Upstate alone is home to 2,008 manufacturers, according to our research team’s latest count. And manufacturing has a massive impact: The sector employs 239,500, approximately 12% of all South Carolinians, according to the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.
Many of these companies never halted their operations, and some even pivoted to adjust to demands spurred by the pandemic.
From BMW vehicles to Lockheed Martin’s F-16s, from AFL’s cable networking to Milliken’s textiles, having an economy based on making things gives us a solid core. Though it goes beyond that: The industry creates opportunities in engineering, research, administration and business support services that permeate the area.
Some notable areas to watch: The life science sector and food and beverage production were already gaining ground before the pandemic, and both have seen an increase in demand as a result.
Technology and connectivity are more important than ever
Think back on 2020, and ask yourself: “What did I accomplish without using the internet?”
Were you riveted by “Tiger King”? Did you become an eLearning instructor and master your home office all at once? Or rely on online ordering to stay stocked with groceries, or to call up comfort food when doing dishes seemed dull? Did you, too, become an expert in Zoom?
Each of these is an example of the role technology plays in our lives.
Now, imagine not having that access at home. That’s the case for an untold number of our state’s residents who don’t have adequate broadband access — “rural broadband” was a big topic before the pandemic and has since skyrocketed in importance. It affects schooling, telehealth, access to goods and services, job opportunities, small business capabilities and more.
The pandemic has pulled many state players into agreement that we need to address the issue, and creative solutions are emerging. This year, Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative and WCFIBER announced a pilot partnership to supply high-speed internet across its service territory, and the General Assembly will continue to explore the issue in 2021.
Adaptability is the key to our resilience
When we talk about the Upstate’s strengths, we focus on our collaborative, “can-do” spirit. How our region works together across industries, and beyond city and county lines, to get things done. Implied within that message is that we’re a community who listens and responds to what’s needed.
We read the room. And that’s vital to our future. From fostering our manufacturing environment, to strengthening our telecommunications infrastructure, to combining both as we pursue businesses that bring industrial systems solutions that can help existing industries evolve, these are the themes that emerge.
It’s as if we were right all along as 2020 set in — “clear vision” can include refined focus shifting into 2021: South Carolina has a strong future as “where manufacturing and technology intersect.” And, in Dusty Rhodes fashion, we, too, will bounce back from “hard times.”