Area poised for growth

Area poised for growth

Joint Base Charleston, home of the C-17-anchored 315th Airlift Wing, and other local military installations, supports about 22,000 jobs, according to estimates.

Heavy footsteps thudded one after another as words like “talent,” “advocacy” and “business” flashed on screens in the dimmed ballroom.

The sounds represented the Charleston region taking its position on the world stage, and the accompanying phrases are what will drive those paces forward.

That was the message Thursday as the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce unveiled plans for a 5-year, $5 million campaign to boost the region's economy.

“I think we stand on the cusp of something great in this region,” said Anita Zucker, CEO of The Intertech Group and one of three executive chairs of “Accelerate Greater Charleston.”

Thirty-eight companies had pledged $2.3 million by Wednesday, and megabank Wells Fargo joined that group as a “major contributor” Thursday. Zucker called on the business leaders in the audience at the Charleston Area Convention Center to cover the balance.

The “Accelerate” campaign announcement came at the chamber's annual economic outlook conference where the short-term projections were considerably more modest than the long-term dreams for the Lowcountry.

Mary Graham, senior vice president of the chamber, predicted the region's unemployment rate would drop to 7 percent next year. She said home sales would be up 3.5 percent this year and 3 percent next year.

Home building is key in South Carolina, according to Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner, who spoke before Graham.

“We're not going to get back to really strong employment numbers until we see some growth in housing,” said Vitner, who's based in Charlotte.

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Gross retail sales, which exceeded $20 billion for the first time in 2011, will also grow modestly.

“The big unknown,” Graham added is how the Base Realignment and Closure and defense budget process play out. The military is responsible for roughly 22,000 local jobs, according to Graham, and the defense budget is set to shrink by 25 percent.

“And no matter what we do to keep those facilities we're going to feel those cuts locally,” she said.

Graham called building a talented workforce the “biggest challenge” the Charleston economy faces. But there are others.

“When one guy blocking a bridge can bring a region of 675,000 people to a grinding halt, we clearly don't have enough infrastructure,” she said, referring to Phillip DeClemente's publicity stunt last month.

Meanwhile, if population growth continues at the same rate as last decade, the Charleston metro area will balloon to 800,000 people by 2020.

Following Graham's and Vitner's presentations, a panel of local economists, guided by College of Charleston President George Benson, dissected thorny issues like the effect of November's presidential election on the economy.

Steve Slifer, a Charleston-based economist, agreed with Vitner that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the health-care reform law is “much bigger than the election.”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.

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