June 20, 2016

15 Most Dynamic Cities for 2016


On a stroll through Charleston's historic district, it can seem like little has changed in this South Carolina port city since the 17th Century.

Graceful old mansions still watch over the harbor, Spanish moss still drips from live oaks and horses still pull carts down cobblestone streets. Many Charlestonians, ever the guardians of Southern manners, still dress for dinner and church.

Look beyond the Old South trappings, though, and much has changed. The antebellum industries that built the city–-cotton, indigo and rice cultivation, and the lamentable infrastructure of slavery that made it all possible–-are long gone. And after several decades of a struggling economy, Charleston is now experiencing a manufacturing boom that many American cities can only dream of, led by the kind of heavy industry that has largely departed from the country's heartland.

To really understand Charleston, you have to go back to the end of the Civil War, still referred to euphemistically by some here as "the recent unpleasantness." The economy was in chaos: Without slavery, the plantation system collapsed. Sharecropping, which was better than slavery but still a hard and impoverishing way of life, quickly took its place. Charleston itself had been burned and bombarded and was largely in ruins. Many former slaves and white farmers migrated north, leaving the plantation class, and their splendid mansions, to corrode in the salty air. And so it went for more than 100 years with just a few unremarkable economic peaks and valleys–-mostly valleys–-along the way. Fertile farmland lay fallow even as jobs were hard to come by. While Charleston has not been at the center of South Carolina's more overt fights over race in recent years, it–-like many progressive Southern cities–-continues to struggle with systemic issues such as segregation and poverty.

But things began to change for Charleston in the mid-1970s when manufacturers such as appliance-maker Bosch moved in, motivated in part by the Port of Charleston, a deep harbor that serves as a conduit to more than 150 countries. Nucor steel, Mercedes-Benz vans and Boeing followed; in late 2009, Boeing began doing final assembly of its 787 Dreamliner in Charleston.

The latest addition is Volvo, which last year announced that it would spend $500 million to build its first U.S. factory in greater Charleston. The port helped, as did the city's colleges, which offer programs specific to the manufacturers' technical needs. "The Port of Charleston has the size and depth of water we need, in addition to wonderful access via road and rail," says Jim Nichols, a Volvo spokesman. "Plus, the Charleston workforce is already prepared for advanced manufacturing–-we were able to partner with South Carolina's technical college system to get workers ready in advance of the plant opening."

Lex Kerssemakers, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, says that the automaker's decision hinged on the local work ethic, enthusiasm and friendliness. On top of that, it is hard to start a trade union in Charleston–-South Carolina is a right-to-work state–-and the city has a vast pool of skilled workers who have been employed in high-tech manufacturing for decades. During the site search, Volvo officials visited Trident Technical College where Boeing workers take Boeing-specific classes. Then they visited the Dreamliner plant, the Mercedes-Benz plant and the International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University. The last stop was watching logistics workers expertly load thousands of Mercedes-Benzes onto one of the many roll-on/roll-off cargo ships docked along East Bay Street. Volvo was sold: Charleston clearly could handle their business.

Companies–-and employees–-are also attracted to Charleston because of its high standard of living. The cost of living is 3 percent below the national average, according to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, and the gross regional product is 26 percent above the national average. Though the cost of living is low, the cultural opportunities are plentiful: Cultural institutions like the new Gaillard Center, a state-of-the-art, 1,800-seat performance hall cum municipal center, are flourishing. (The Gaillard Center's 2015 opening gala was sponsored by, among others, Volvo and Skanska, a multinational construction company involved in building Boeing's facilities.)

However, there are some growing pains. The 3,100 square miles that make up greater Charleston encompass some of the most diverse and delicate ecosystems in the world, including dunes, tidal marshes, wetlands, blackwater rivers and old-growth forests. Build a factory in the wrong place and the environmental damage is vast and irreversible. "The unprecedented rate of growth in the Charleston metro area is degrading water, air and wildlife habitat, in large part because of the lack of proper planning," says Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, although some corporate citizens–-Boeing in particular–-have worked hard to mitigate their environmental impact. Volvo also looks to be a responsible player on the environmental front. According to the state, there are no endangered species on the 6,800-acre tract where the plant is located, and as part of the deal bringing in the factory, South Carolina agreed to spend $12 million on environmental preservation at the site. Perhaps the biggest problem, Beach says, is the local government's failure to improve transportation infrastructure.

And new infrastructure, especially better public transportation, is needed. Manufacturing has brought population pressures and congestion; between 1999 and 2014, Charleston grew from around 84,000 people to more than 130,000, a 55 percent increase. Bedroom communities such as Mount Pleasant and West Ashley are seeing an explosion of new high-end homes with price tags well above the national average. And even more visitors are on the way: A new $35 million cruise ship terminal is in the works along the waterfront.

Some locals will argue to their dying breaths that Charleston should avoid growth altogether, but most remember the '70s and '80s when the downtown decayed and strip clubs occupied historic buildings. "My husband and I would go to the movies downtown on Sunday afternoons, but we had to go to the 3 p.m. show and rush to the car by 5," says Nese Zinn, who owned Zinn Rug Gallery on Wentworth Street for many years. "It wasn't safe to walk down King Street. Everything was boarded up. It was scary." Consequently, most locals, despite discomfort with the influx of newcomers, have welcomed economic development. They understand the financial benefits: Volvo's estimated 8,000 new jobs over the next decade will translate to $48 billion in economic impact every year. And it's those kinds of jobs and the revenue they bring that are helping Charleston move on from its conflicted past to a new and more forward-looking identity.

Quality of Life: With great good, beautiful architecture, and seaside pursuits, Charleston has much to offer visitors and tourists alike.

Business Climate: A technically proficient workforce and major port make Charleston a manufacturing magnet.

Civic Leadership: The city has worked hard to court businesses and tourists without losing its unique charm.