Amazon proposal still has great benefits to the Upstate

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By John Lummus, president and CEO, Upstate SC Alliance

If you’re beginning to think that “Amazon” and “disruption” are synonyms, you’re not alone.

The e-commerce giant has revolutionized the way we acquire products, the way we watch “TV,” and, thanks to Echo, even the way we organize our lives.

In an unexpected move for many, the Jeff Bezos-led giant also turned the economic development process on its head in September, when it announced a public quest for its second headquarters.

In communities across the Upstate, an immediate roar for the project rang out — from public and private leaders — calling to throw our hats into the ring.

The result was a monthslong, all-hands collaboration to collect available site information from across the 10-county Upstate, compile data, and partner across industry and county lines to ensure we put our region’s best foot forward.

We positioned the Upstate as “The Center of Charlanta,” located within a mega-region of 22 million people, along Interstate 85 nearly halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.

Recently, 20 finalist communities were named, including nearby Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C. We’ve read media coverage and spoken with some reporters who are curious about the region’s “loss” of the project.

I’d like to address the idea of losing head-on: This news was no surprise to us. Both cities have greater population density, more public transportation, and more mature technology presences.

When the Upstate’s economic developers collaborated to submit our region’s proposal, all hands were on deck to participate — and that exercise of working together to position ourselves for future projects of this nature remains one of the greatest benefits of our participation.

We worked together as a team to share the “Tale of Two MSAs” with three intricately connected “micropolitan” areas (for your mental picture: Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin MSA, home to 824,112; the Spartanburg MSA, home to 313,268; and Gaffney, Greenwood, and Seneca).

That picture converts our business case from a smaller community to one with a population of 1.4 million; home to nearly 500 international companies from 34 countries; a growing commercial and cargo aviation center with Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport; a deep pool of higher education (strengthened by Clemson University’s public-private research partnerships); and a robust technical college environment. The regional strengths don’t stop there – think of the role that health care, K-12 education, roads, and rail also play in a business location decision.

As an exercise, the Amazon Request for Proposals (RFP) allowed us to ask ourselves some critical questions that can guide our future work. It helped us sharpen our business pitch and helped to identify some key infrastructure requirements needed to sustain a project of its size.

Another factor the project highlighted: South Carolina’s incentive system is friendly to companies that invest heavily in new construction, machinery, and equipment to knit them into our region — but it needs to be strengthened if we’re to be competitive within more office- and technology-oriented recruitment.

There’s a measure before the General Assembly that relates directly to this: S. 404, passed by the Senate in 2017. I urge the House to pass companion legislation this year.

Previous thought has been that lightweight, office-type operations succeeding with leases and portable equipment are a risk for public investment, lest they leave for greener pastures when their leases end.

Today, however, the nature of many market segments has changed; more efficient technology now enables greater impact with lower costs. Companies can have a sizable effect on our economy even if they don’t take up much physical room in our area. (Remember all those other disruptive attributes of Amazon?)

While we are rightfully proud of our thriving manufacturing and automotive production sectors, South Carolina could greatly increase its competitiveness for businesses and corporate headquarters outside of those industries.

Amazon helped us pair a name with this idea. But for every site selection effort as high-profile as Amazon’s has been, there are thousands that are not public.

They vary in size and scope, and communities from Greenville and Spartanburg to Columbia and Charleston stand to see tremendous benefits if we sharpen our competitive edge.

While there is always a sting with elimination, the Amazon project provided the Upstate the opportunity to come together as one team within one region — a big win for us all.

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