“We had routes we would take people on to keep them out of downtown,” said David Britt, the vice chairman of Spartanburg County Council as audience members laugh. “I mean that’s no joke. Because it was boarded up. It wasn’t something to be proud of.”
At this year’s Outlook Spartanburg conference, it was easy for the audience to chuckle at Britt’s recounting of how, years ago, he had tiptoed around the county with prospects.
That’s because speaker after speaker at this year’s economic outlook event, held Dec. 6 at the Spartanburg Marriott, painted a picture of a city and county on a roll.
Warming up the crowd for its breakout sessions, Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, ticked off a mix of recent achievements.
Nearly 300 businesses are up and running downtown. “One in four businesses was not there three years ago,” Smith said, with $50 million in downtown development occurring in the past year and $292 million of development in progress or announced.
Growth in hotel development, up by 22 percent in Spartanburg County, is the highest such growth by percentage in the state, surpassing Charleston and Myrtle Beach in a key tourism metric. The average occupancy rate for hotels in the county stands at 68 percent.
Countywide, 22 projects in 2019 represented $286.5 million in capital investment. Of those, 59% were new, 41% represented expansions and 40% of the total were advanced manufacturing projects.
“One county is generating 25 percent of our state’s investment,” Smith said proudly.
Other economic-development leaders were equally bullish.
Spartanburg is the 19th fastest-growing county in the country, Britt noted.
“The Inland Port has been a game-changer,” added Max Metcalf, government and community relations manager for BMW and chairman of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.
Metcalf said GSP International Airport has emerged as an excellent supply-chain partner for the port.
“The tremendous increase in air cargo is benefited by being by the inland port. … It creates a multi-modal system because you can bring cargo in by air, have maybe it go into containers at some complex and then be ready to go to market either by rail or by truck from air,” Metcalf explained.
All told, public-private cooperation in Spartanburg County has generated $16 billion in industrial and commercial development and 45,000 jobs from just before BMW put down roots in the early 1990s to today, said Katherine O’Neill, the new executive vice president of the chamber’s economic futures group.
Heading into 2020, fundamental measures remain strong in support of the continued revitalization of downtown and the ongoing recruitment of larger business prospects, although uncertainty over tariffs continues to make some international prospects hesitant.
Nationally, economic expansion will continue, but at a slower rate closer to 2%, said Tim Quinlan, director and senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities, the event’s keynote speaker.
Both employment growth and consumer spending remain strong and single-family home building is steady, he said.
Quinlan described Spartanburg County as a “powerhouse of growth.”
“Even with the trade war, we can still continue to grow,” the Charlotte-based economist noted. But he warned that tit-for-tat retaliatory tariffs are starting to hit some consumer goods categories in the U.S. directly.
The chill may come off
The trade wars that began in 2017 have been like “ice-cold water poured on development in Spartanburg” with companies hesitating to make firm commitments on major projects, said Britt, who is the county’s point person on tariffs.
Nevertheless, companies representing 11 countries including China, France and Germany were involved in some kind of development in the county during 2019, according to chamber data. A total of 211 international companies now call Spartanburg County home.
Britt believes 2020 will usher in a softening of the trade wars as a result of the costs they continue to inflict domestically and as candidates for public office emerge victorious from primary squabbles and no longer need to fend off party challengers.
“I think you’ll see some things changing after the primary season finishes and people don’t have opponents and I think also you’ll see some trade deals get made pretty fast,” Britt said.
A week after Britt made that prediction, President Donald Trump announced a partial trade deal with China in which tariffs on a number of consumer products imported into the U.S. were scaled back or cancelled. For its part, China agreed to buy hundreds of billions of dollars more of U.S. goods.
“We’re going to go back to ‘white-hot’ next year,” Britt predicted.