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Columbia improves, but loses ground in competitiveness report

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While its index value in four of five categories rose in the 2017 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report, Columbia’s ranking among peer cities fell in three of the indicators used to measure economic competitiveness, leaving local leaders proud of the progress made but aware of the work left to do.

EngenuitySC executive director Meghan Hickman talks about the 2017 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report. (Photo/Jeff Blake)“My main conclusion is that the Columbia region has the attributes to support a truly competitive economy,” said Doug Woodward, an economics professor and director of the division of research at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “We need to redouble (our) efforts to attract and retain more talent and to support more entrepreneurial technology. … We say this competition is a race, and sometimes it is; it’s all relative. But we’ve got to run faster.”

Woodward led the data gathering and analysis of the fourth annual report, an initiative of EngenuitySC, a nonprofit organization focused on entrepreneurial growth and prosperity in the state. The report compared the Columbia metropolitan statistical area, including Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Fairfield, Saluda and Calhoun counties, to nine other comparative regional locations.

Columbia’s index value rose in talent, innovative capacity, entrepreneurial and business environment and high-impact industry clusters, but its ranking in entrepreneurial and business environment slipped from seventh in 2016 to ninth in 2017. The city’s ranking in industry clusters dropped a spot, from seventh to eighth, while both Columbia’s index value and ranking in the final category, livability, fell.

Columbia ranked second among the cities in livability with 107 index points in 2016. In 2017, it fell to fourth, with 102 index points.

Columbia ranked sixth among the 10 cities in talent, up from eighth in 2016, and bested the field in percentage of workers with an associate degree at 9.1%, though its percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree slipped from 31.7% to 30.8%. It also rose a spot in the innovative capacity rankings, from eighth to seventh.

Columbia’s livability score was two points above the national average of 100. Columbia also beat the national average in high-impact industry clusters.

All other locations lagged behind Raleigh, N.C., dubbed an “aspirant” city and far and away the leader in innovative capacity and industry clusters with scores driven by the area’s renowned Research Triangle.

“Ultimately, when you look at our progress over last year’s numbers, almost every indicator has improved,” said EngenuitySC executive director Meghan Hickman. “We are seeing improvement. It’s steady growth. It’s better than last year. But it’s not keeping pace.”

Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the competitiveness report provides a valuable tool for the city to measure where it stands in attracting and retaining businesses.

“Capital cities are unique. We’re a different marketplace,” Blackstone said. “Cost is a big thing. The regulatory scheme does cost money. … We need to have a better target, and we need to be more strategic in the companies we go after. Not everybody is right for this marketplace. We may not be going after automobile plants, and that’s OK. Most likely, they’re not coming here. But we need to find the companies that will and really focus on those. Shotgun approaches don’t work. We’ve got to go with the right approach.”

Leaders of several Midlands industries attended Monday’s revealing of the report results at the Carolina Alumni Center. Partner John Martin described how law firm Nelson Mullins used advanced data analytics to coordinate a project involving four locations and 2,000 team members from Columbia as an example of the innovation in the private sector that city officials want to see grow. James Bennett, area executive vice president of First Citizens Bank and an executive committee member of the Midlands Business Leadership Group, outlined that organization’s efforts to improve Columbia’s competitive environment.

“The same cities we are competing against – they are not sitting idly by,” Bennett said. “We have to have a will to live better. We have a diverse community that is stronger than all our parts.”

Blackstone said Columbia has a deep talent base but must work to keep it. To that goal, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin encouraged companies to expand internship offerings. Woodward predicted an upward trend in all categories in 2018, citing Columbia’s continued growth and emphasis on improving its education-to-workforce pipeline.

“Four years ago, there were 25 of us, flipping through the report, sharing the numbers and celebrating our successes,” Hickman said. “We had almost 150 people registered to be here today. That alone demonstrates that there’s something happening. I don’t know that it’s necessarily tangible, but there’s some momentum. There’s a sense that there really is change that is both here and more coming.”

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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