Charleston economy moved past fragility to stability this year

  • Posted: Monday, December 31, 2012 12:01 a.m., Updated: Monday, December 31, 2012 12:30 a.m.
Test pilots practice touch and go landing with Boeing's first South Carolina built 787 at Charleston International Airport at the end of a five hour test flight. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 5/23/12 Buy this photo

This time a year ago, “fragile” was the go-to term to describe the state of the local economy.

Through the year: Other notable 2012 business news

January

Blackbaud announces a $275 million deal to buy Convio.



S.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear a lawsuit against Carnival challenging the cruise line’s use of Union Pier.



Food Lion to close 126 supermarkets, including its last two stores in Mount Pleasant.



February

Political infighting over Georgia’s plan to deepen the Savannah River continued when Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a S.C. measure aimed at blocking the deal.



Baker Motor purchased Sentry Buick GMC in West Ashley.



Wild Wing Cafe sold a majority interest to Axum Capital Partners.



March

Nexans announced it will invest $85 million to build a high-voltage cable manufacturing plant in Bushy Park and create 200 jobs.



April

First Federal assumes the six branches and other assets of failed Plantation Federal Bank.



Community FirstBank merged its coastal lending businesses into the newly named CresCom Bank.



May

State-owned utility Santee Cooper proposes an average 3.5 percent rate increase for each of two years.



S.C. Aquarium opened a new attraction called Madagascar Journey.



Charleston software firm Avista Solutions was sold for $40 million



June

Charleston International Airport and the Air Force Base will be down to one runway for up to a year. On June 18, reconstruction started on the main 9,000-foot strip.



Regulators seized Carolina Federal Savings Bank. The Bank of North Carolina took over the failed lender.



Cummins Turbo Technologies said it will expand and add 76 jobs.



CertusBank announced its Charleston expansion.



July

State Ports Authority said it will build an cargo-handling yard in Greer.



Tellis Pharmacy closes after 60 years on King Street.



August

The PGA Championship is staged at Kiawah Island. The economic impact was estimated at $193 million.



Morgan Olson, a maker of walk-in van bodies, said it will open a North Charleston factory.



Asahi Kasei Spandex America announced it will close its 132-worker Bushy Park plant.



September

A judge ruled that Berkeley County can support two new hospitals. The decision allows Trident and Roper to build 50-bed facilities. But Trident vowed to appeal.



Woodlands Inn was sold, ending its 17-year run as an acclaimed getaway..



October

Esquire put The Macintosh and Carter’s Kitchen on its 2012 list of “Best New Restaurants.”



North Charleston bid $2 million to buy the vacant Navy hospital across from the former Shipwatch Square property, which the city also owns.



November

Pearlstine Distributors Inc. agreed to be sold to Southern Eagle Distributing.



Cummins Marine told workers it’s shutting down its local manufacturing line.



Charleston-based Jupiter Holdings completed the sale of most of its self-storage business for $75 million.



December

Regulators issued a permit for a new $35 million cruise-ship terminal in Charleston.



Regulators OK’d a $97 million rate increase for S.C. Electric & Gas.



Millard Refrigerated Services said it will build a cold-storage food warehouse in North Charleston.



Benefitfocus opened its design and engineering building on Daniel Island and said it plans to add 300 jobs over two years, most of them locally.



Daniel Island software firm SPARC said it plans to add 310 jobs and expand its local office campus by 2016.

Not so much anymore.

As 2012 comes to a close, most economists, CEOs and other business observers are using more bullish language, tossing out adjectives like “stable,” strengthening” or “improving,” whether they’re referring to employment, tourism, real estate, the port or some other key measuring stick.

It’s been a long climb out of a deep hole — and no one can say for sure what’s around the bend given the gridlock on Capitol Hill and other uncertainties — but 2012 underscored the time-tested resilience of the Charleston economy.

Here’s a look back at the major issues and developments that topped the local business agenda this past year:

1. ‘We build jets’

Boeing Co. makes and flies its first airplane in South Carolina. Boeing delivers its first locally made airplane from South Carolina. Boeing looks to cement its presence in South Carolina. That, in a nutshell, summed up the kind of milestone year for the aerospace giant, which employs more than 6,000 workers at its North Charleston 787 campus.

Boeing experienced a few setbacks for the Dreamliner program this year, including an engine failure during a high-speed taxi test at Charleston International Airport. But it also marked it share of accomplishments. The company rolled out its first locally assembled 787 in April to the chants of, “We build jets!” The first delivery to Air India in early October was a more subdued affair.

Boeing punctuated the busy year a few weeks ago by purchasing the S.C. Research Authority campus next to its airport property and by announcing plans to buy the land under its 787 campus. Boeing also is looking to acquire almost 800 adjacent acres from the Charleston County Aviation Authority for future uses.

2. Home front

Month after month, the numbers rolled in, and month after month, a welcome trend emerged for the residential real estate industry. Through Dec. 10, transaction volume was up 14 percent and the median price was 5.6 percent higher from the same period of 2011, the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors said. The latest report marked the 13th consecutive month of climbing home sales. Lower prices and rock-bottom mortgage rates continue to drive buyers to the closing table and nudge home builders off the sidelines.

Inventory levels, meanwhile, closed the year at a roughly a six-month supply, which is considered the ideal level. “It clearly shows how much consumer confidence in our market has improved in the last 36 months,” the association said in a statement.

As home sales rebounded, the rental markets didn’t sit idly by. The construction of new apartments continued to accelerate in 2012, with roughly 4,500 new units in the pipeline as of earlier his month.

3. Dredge edge

At the Port of Charleston, the most critical issue centered on the muck at the bottom of the harbor. So maritime officials, who are itching to take the channel to 50 feet so it can handle the larger, heavier ships of the future, were relieved that efforts advanced this year to dredge the silty material.

State lawmakers in June committed $300 million for the work just in case federal money isn’t available when it’s needed. But a high-level decision to fast-track the deepening made a real difference. The Obama administration in July expedited five port projects, including Charleston’s. The upshot: All federal reviews will be finished by September 2015, meaning the harbor could be 5 feet deeper by 2019. “The overarching message is that this is a priority project, and it needs to move fast,” said ports chief Jim Newsome.

4. Employment uptick

The jobless rate isn’t always a reliable economic indicator, but in 2012, it was notable for heading in the right direction in South Carolina: lower. The figure was north of 10 percent at the start of the year. By November it had dropped four months in a row to 8.3 percent, its lowest level since October 2008.

The decline came as the state added almost 10,000 jobs, tracking slow national job growth. “That’s real improvement,” said Mark Vitner, Wells Fargo’s Charlotte-based chief economist.

5. A tout for tourism:

For the second straight year, readers of Conde Nast Traveler named Charleston the No. 1 tourist destination in the U.S. But that wasn’t all: The survey also ranked Charleston as the top travel spot on the globe for the first time, ahead of Cape Town, South Africa, and Florence, Italy. “To be No. 1 twice in the U.S. is unbelievable, and to be named No. 1 city in the world, you can’t do any better than that,” said Helen Hill of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Readers of the travel magazine made the choice based on overall ambience, culture, sights, friendliness, lodging, restaurants and shopping. “Last year we were flattered,” the CVB said in a video it produced to capitalize on the distinction. “This year, we’re on top of the world.”

6. Hotel developers check in

Charleston’s rising profile in the travel world was reflected by the surge of activity in the hotel development business. Nearly 1,500 new lodging rooms are being built or are in the planning stages on peninsular Charleston, a 44 percent jump over the existing 3,281 rooms in the city’s downtown area.

7. Tracking the port

Feuding factions settled a long-running political dispute over how to provide competing rail access to a new port terminal on the old Navy base. In one corner was the state. It will get most of what it wanted: an intermodal yard, with train access for CSX and Norfolk Southern.

In the opposite corner was North Charleston,. The city gets $8 million, more than 100 acres around Riverfront Park and a traffic study. The state also will pay off $6.6 million in debt associated with redevelopment work on the former base.

8. Blue skies ahead at airport

In 2011, Charleston landed Southwest Airlines. In 2013, a younger rival of the low-cost pioneer will be setting up shop in the Lowcountry. JetBlue Airways announced plans to start daily flights between Charleston International and New York and Boston in February.

9. Weaning off coal

Santee Cooper said it would mothball aging power generators at two sites in South Carolina. The closings take effect today for two coal-fired units in Conway and all four units at Jefferies Generating Station in Moncks Corner. The decision came partly in response to new environmental rules.

10. Terminal

condition

Charleston International Airport kicked off a $162.5 million expansion and makeover project, paving the way for two years of construction. Improvements include an expansion of the aircraft parking apron, four new gates, a third baggage carousel, consolidated security checkpoint and numerous cosmetic changes.

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