To developer Scott Garvin, Columbia provides an opportunity to bring new business, jobs and residents to Main Street.
To Lou Kennedy, local government’s business friendly culture made it possible for her company to expand and relocate its headquarters from Florida.
And to Sam McGuckin, being in a town with a major research university and thriving insurance IT industry offered a ready-made workforce to launch his tech firm.
While the Midlands established a base for their firms the potential to succeed, the three business leaders say the region needs to focus more on developing a skilled workforce and promoting its livability.
All three participated on a recent Columbia Chamber panel discussion involving regional development in the Midlands. The event was part one of a three-part Spring Business Impact Series.
Garvin, president of Garvin Design Group, is credited with helping to revitalize Columbia, especially Main Street. He said the projects are a way of helping bring new business to Columbia.
Garvin talked about his offices at the corner of Lincoln and Gervais, when there wasn’t a soul on the street, but the addition of a Starbucks completely changed the pedestrian traffic.
“Before Mast General Store, many people said that part of Main Street was dead, but look at it now,” Garvin said. “It’s about looking for opportunities and have someone wanting to be that catalyst and create opportunities.”
Garvin does that by renovating old buildings in the community, including the former Hennessy’s Restaurant on Main Street.
“If we’re trying to recruit to Main Street or the Vista, or anywhere in Columbia, we try to highlight the activities going on in the retail, especially the housing and student housing,” Garvin said. “It’s a spin off to people moving downtown.”
Garvin’s group was behind the transformation of the Palmetto Compress Building to apartments.
“There is a demand of people wanting to quit mowing their lawns, and move downtown,” Garvin said. “If I could create 50 high-end apartments downtown right now, mixed-use apartments, I could fill them up.”
Kennedy, CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals, praised Garvin for what he has been able to accomplish in Columbia.
“I came back in 2010, and this place has changed dramatically,” Kennedy said. “Most of our vendors are coming from Europe, and it’s a great opportunity for us to have places to entertain and stay. Columbia has become a good recruiting tool.”
Kennedy said it’s important for Columbia to be a vibrant city, in order to make it OK to live on the outskirts of the city. In June 2014, Nephron opened its generic pharmaceutical manufacturing operation in Saxe Gotha Industrial Park near Cayce, just a few minutes by car from downtown Columbia.
Prior to Nephron’s opening its pharmaceutical plant and later relocating headquarters to the Midlands, Nephron was headquartered in Orlando, Fla. Kennedy said the move was prompted by the hassles she had to go through to do business in the state of Florida.
“We can get a site permitted in six days here; in Orlando we couldn’t get a meeting in six days,” Kennedy told the Chamber group. “We needed 23 licenses in Florida, keeping up with the licensure was a full-time job. Make one mistake and you could be facing a hefty fine; that’s not business friendly.”
Kennedy went on to say that the state is right to try and streamline the process. “We don’t need to make it so difficult, we should be welcoming, not discouraging.”
McGuckin, president and CEO of TCube Solutions, said Columbia was good for him because of the unique concentration of insurance technology.
“We had people here that grew up with the old policy system,” McGuckin said. “There’s an opportunity to take full advantage of that now, we want to attract young technical talent and the University (of South Carolina) has been a constant source of talent.”
McGuckin said interns used to look at him as a line item on a resume, but now after working in the company, they realize they enjoy the work, and can see themselves staying in Columbia.
Kennedy added that USC and other schools in the Midlands are wells of workforce talent. She said she would like to see more companies take the talent that is here and encourage it to stay.
Garvin said the restaurants that he has helped open over the last several years have gone a long way in increasing the number of jobs in Columbia.
“Those places hire 50 to 70 people each that you don’t hear about,” Garvin said. “That’s a lot of jobs being created in the downtown corridor.”
He also said restaurant managers tell him that Columbia falls short when it comes to having good reliable labor. He also said construction labor is hard to find.
“It’s a battle trying to get good talent to come here; how do we go about recruiting good construction labor to Columbia? That shortage is a big deal,” Garvin said.
Kennedy brought up the subject of livability, specifically Greenville’s Riverwalk.
“We’re not capitalizing on our God-made rivers that come together downtown,” Kennedy said. “We have to improve the offerings around the Midlands, make it all it can be. Today, young talent are picking a city and then looking for a job, not the other way around. We have to promote what we have. Love it, support it and raise it up.”
The Columbia Chamber will hold part two of its Spring Business Impact Series April 12. For more information, visit the chamber’s website at http://columbiachamber.com/.
This story originally appeared in the March 27, 2017, print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.