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A busy 2021 on tap for Charleston's business scene

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Leatherman Terminal

Cranes are being raised at the Leatherman Terminal site in North Charleston in preparation for the facility's opening in March. Walter Lagarenne/State Ports Authority/Provided

If the past 12 months are any guide, the economy offers no guarantees or certainties as one year gives way to the next.

But it does earn a forward-looking reboot, complete with a fresh set of aspirations and expectations once January rolls around.

Here are some of the major business events and developments that Charleston-area residents will be paying attention to now that the calendar has turned the page to 2021.

Ship shape

When the new Leatherman Terminal opens in North Charleston this year, it will be the first new container wharf built at any major U.S. seaport in more than a decade. And its completion will help give the Port of Charleston the room it will need to grow for decades to come.

"I don't think there is any question this will be significantly impactful — you don't do this kind of thing every day," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority.

The first phase of the $1 billion terminal, named for state Sen. Hugh Leatherman of Florence, will be able to handle the equivalent of 700,000 20-foot containers each year once it opens in March.

When the second and third segments are completed at the former Navy Base along the Cooper River, it will roughly double the port's total annual capacity, to about 5 million cargo boxes.

Work on the opening phase was winding down as of last week.

  • Utilities are nearly 90 percent in place.
  • Five ship-to-shore cranes towering 169 feet tall have been delivered, with four expected to be commissioned and operational on opening day.
  • The last six of 25 hybrid-powered gantry cranes will arrive this month.
  • A road connecting the terminal to Interstate 26 will open in mid-February.
  • Test ships will arrive next month to make sure the terminal and its equipment are operating properly.
  • A state-of-the-art gate system featuring facial recognition technology will greet the first truckers to move through the container yard.

The SPA plans to move four of its biggest weekly container ship services to Leatherman from Wando Welch Terminal during the coming year, freeing up space for more growth at the older Mount Pleasant site. A rail yard that will move containers from Leatherman to inland distribution sites is in the works, as is a barge that would move containers from Wando Welch to the train hub, keeping some trucks off local roads. 

While the terminal is first and foremost an economic generator, adding to the port's $63.4 billion annual impact, it's also an emotional experience for a region with its 350-year history so intertwined with the sea.

"Every employee here and every person in the maritime community at large is really proud of the fact that we have delivered this facility and we will operate it together," said Barbara Melvin, the SPA's chief operating officer.

Newsome sees the new terminal as a promise that the Charleston area will continue to provide good-paying jobs along the waterfront for generations to come.

"You can assure people that there's longevity here and they can make a good income if they want to work in this industry," he said.

The Leatherman Terminal won't be the only SPA facility in the headlines this year. The Wando Welch Terminal that's been the port's workhorse in recent years will celebrate its 40th anniversary in November.

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The Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street is seeing less demand for its travel brochures as the sharp drop-off in tourism in 2020 continues to ripple through the economy. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Tourism's tough start 

South Carolina hospitality officials are keeping their sense of optimism close to the vest in 2021. To put it bluntly, conditions in the industry are likely going to get worse before they get better in the new year. 

State tourism director Duane Parrish predicted a "bleak" first quarter for travel as states continue to struggle with rising coronavirus cases and with widespread distribution of vaccines well out of reach. That could translate into more layoffs at hotels and permanent restaurant closings for South Carolina. 

Charleston, in particular, isn't entering 2021 in a position of strength. It's still missing about a quarter of its hospitality jobs after losing more than half in the spring, compared to a 15 percent average drop statewide. 

Major events that typically kick off the Holy City's busy season are either scaled back or won't be taking place at all. The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, set for Feb. 12-14, is selling 25 percent of its typical capacity. Charleston Wine + Food, usually the biggest tourism draw in March, was canceled. Just last week, the Cooper River Bridge Run was pushed back to September from March.

But some visitor-driven segments are expected to stay strong, such as demand for short-term rentals, which saw some growth in late 2020 as people who did travel sought out lodging options with more space, privacy and proximity to beaches and other outdoor attractions.

A rebound in Charleston's destination wedding business is another expected bright spot. Many couples rescheduled their 2020 ceremonies for a year out, so sought-after Saturdays already are booked solid. That has out-of-town lovebirds opting for alternative days to tie the knot in the Holy City. 

South of Broad house for sale

Record-low mortgage interest rates and the prospect of an end to the pandemic could lead to a continued high volume of home sales in the new year. File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

Home sales

Home sales set another new record in the Charleston region in just 11 months in 2020, despite the spring lockdown that temporarily canceled showings and kept buyers at bay.

The pace is not expected to let up in the new year, with the pandemic lurking as a potential caveat.

Rock-bottom borrowing costs for buyers are expected to help drive purchases this year, when more homes are projected to come on the market.

"Moving into 2021, we expect rates to hold steady, but the key driver in the near term will be the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and the execution of the vaccine," said Sam Khater, chief economist of the home-loan financing agency Freddie Mac.

The average rate on the benchmark 30-year-fixed mortgage is projected to rise slowly from 2.7 percent to the still-low 3 percent range, according to Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for online real estate brokerage Redfin. The difference could deter buyers from bidding up prices, but the increase likely won't be enough to put much of a dent in sales, he added.

Redfin also predicted the number of U.S. homes classified as new listings will climb by more than 5 percent, adding some balance to a supply-and-demand curve that currently favors sellers over buyers, after declining 3 percent in 2020.

Yet another demand factor that bodes well for home sales is the caravan of out-of-state residents who are ditching crowded places like New York City. In South Carolina they're typically flocking to urban areas, including Charleston, Greenville and Rock Hill near Charlotte. It's a trend that's likely to continue now that workers have learned they can do their jobs remotely from almost anywhere. 

787-10 Dreamliner

Boeing builds the 787-10 (above) exclusively in North Charleston. That helped seal the planemaker's decision to consolidate all Dreamliner production at its South Carolina plant in 2021. File/David Wren/Staff

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Boeing's big move 

Since the fall, Boeing's plant in North Charleston has known that it will soon be the sole assembly site for the aerospace giant's 787 aircraft.

But, until more recently, it wasn't known just how soon that would happen. 

Boeing confirmed just before the holidays that it was speeding up the timeline for consolidating the widebody plane program in South Carolina. 

Instead of the prior "mid-2021" guesstimate, Boeing said it plans to shut down 787 assembly in Everett, Wash. — the location that, up to this point, has been splitting the work with North Charleston — in March. 

Along with preparations for the consolidation, the first quarter of the new year may also bring new insight into how much Boeing South Carolina was affected by the companywide buyouts and layoffs it initiated to try to balance out huge financial losses caused by the pandemic. 

Boeing's state-by-state employee counts are typically updated around the start of each calendar year. The planemaker is also expected to release a racial breakdown of its payroll for the first time in 2021 as part of a pledge to improve the representation rate of Black employees in the U.S. by 20 percent.

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The General Assembly will be debating the future of state-owned Santee Cooper in 2021. File/Cindi Ross Scoppe/Staff

Power play 

To sell or not to sell? That is the question for South Carolina's state-run power company.  

Lawmakers in Columbia may finally make up their minds about what to do with Santee Cooper in 2021. 

The General Assembly is preparing to vote on whether to keep the public utility or offload it to NextEra Energy, the largest publicly traded power company in the country. 

That decision was supposed to be made last year, but like many plans in 2020, it got pushed aside by the coronavirus pandemic. So lawmakers will try again this year.

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Dominion Energy is seeking its first rate hike in the state since its acquisition of South Carolina Electric & Gas two years ago. File/Provided

Rate debate

Another question that will dominate the electric power industry in 2021 is how Dominion Energy's rate hike request will play out after the S.C. Public Service Commission begins proceedings this month.

The Richmond, Va.-based utility giant wants to increase the monthly bills for its 753,000 power customers in the Palmetto State by 7.7 percent.

But the request — Dominion's first since it snapped up South Carolina Electric & Gas two years ago — faces a political and legal backlash. Gov. Henry McMaster even chimed in. He fired off a letter in November to the company's top executive in the state saying that the rate hike request was ill-timed with COVID-19 still spreading across the country and with the fragile economy still in recovery mode. 

The seven regulators who make up the utility commission will hold hearings in early January to sort through evidence and determine whether the company can justify the size of the increase, which would bring in an additional $178 million in annual revenue. 

The final decision is expected by March. 

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The Carnival Sunshine is tentatively scheduled to resume sailings between its home port in Charleston and the Bahamas on March 1. File/Brad Nettles/ Staff

Let the Sunshine in?

Carnival Cruise Line hopes to bring its Sunshine cruise ship back to downtown Charleston on March 1 following nearly a year on a pandemic-induced hiatus, but homebound passengers itching to shove off for a Caribbean vacation might want to hold off on packing their bags.

The company has delayed its restart from Union Pier Terminal and other ports several times as the coronavirus continues to spread through the U.S. The State Ports Authority, which is Carnival's landlord in Charleston, hasn't been notified of a specific date when sailings will resume from the foot of Market Street.

"They have lots of bigger ports than us, and they need to get back in business in Miami and Port Canaveral where they have a much bigger presence," SPA chief Jim Newsome said. "We're really a niche port for them. So it will happen when they can properly manage it and satisfy the ... (Centers for Disease Control) of their protocols. A lot of the resumption of these activities is going to be vaccine-based."

Carnival halted all cruises more than nine months ago, in mid-March. The CDC lifted its ban on cruises from U.S. ports on Oct. 31, but it said ships must follow strict guidelines before returning to sea with paying passengers aboard. They include adherence to testing, quarantine and social distancing requirements as well as building the laboratory capacity to test crew members and cruisers for the virus.

The Jasper

The Jasper mixed-use development on Broad Street is ready for its close-up in 2021. Robert Behre/Staff

Battle-tested building

A high-profile real estate development that ignited a pitched battle over building heights on the lower peninsula is ready for occupancy in 2021.

The Jasper tops out at 12 stories near Colonial Lake at the west end of Broad Street, offering panoramic views of Charleston Harbor and the Ashley and Cooper rivers from its elevated vantage points. 

The Beach Co.'s newly built luxury project blends residential and commercial uses, with 219 rental dwellings, 100,000 square feet of combined office and retail space and an enclosed parking garage. The multilevel complex on four acres replaced the firm's 1950s-era 14-story Sgt. Jasper apartment building.

The developer battled the city for several years to get the project to the starting gate. Early opposition prompted the real estate firm to swap out its original low-rise proposal with what turned out to be the final design.

And when the city rezoned the property later to rein in the size and scale of the taller revised project, litigation followed, with the developer alleging the Board of Architectural Review had overstepped its authority.

The legal dispute eventually was settled with no material changes to the The Jasper layout once it was approved in 2017.

The new addition to the peninsula's skyline has at least one anchor commercial tenant in hand. Wells Fargo, which recently vacated a building at Market and Meeting streets, is taking 30,000 square feet of office space to house its local commercial banking and wealth management units. One of the lender's neighbors will be The Beach Co., which moved from its former King Street headquarters and now calls The Jasper home.

Andrew Brown, John McDermott, Emily Williams and Warren Wise of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.

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