Charleston growth ranking shows resilience

A wall inside one of the business incubators on the Charleston Digital Corridor showcases companies that have used the facility as a launch pad into Charleston’s growing tech economy.

Looking at other cities’ growth in 2014, it appears Charleston’s overall economy has gone from a galloping pace to a light jog for the first time in four years.

The Charleston-North Charleston Metro area ranked 39th in the nonpartisan Milken Institute’s “Best-Performing Cities 2014,” down from No. 11 in 2013 and from No. 9 in 2012. The annual report ranks 200 large cities based on job, wage and industry growth.

But actually, Charleston’s fall from the top 20 cities can be seen as an achievement rather than a loss, said Minoli Ratnatunga, a spokeswoman for Milken.

“Because Charleston performed so well during the recession, it now has fewer jobs to regain as we enter the recovery,” Ratnatunga said Thursday. “Some of the cities that did really well this year are regaining construction jobs that they lost during the housing bust.”

Generally speaking, she said, cities that bounced back from the recession quickly ranked high in the past few years, and now they’re being outpaced by cities seeing dramatic recoveries.

“The beauty of the ranking is that Charleston is becoming more economically resilient,” said Ernest Andrade, executive director of the Charleston Digital Corridor.

Part of that can be attributed to the efforts made in the early 2000s to diversify the local economy, he said, like the creation of the corridor to help grow the tech industry.

Now, the local tech scene is growing about as quickly as Silicon Valley and similar cities on the West Coast. Milken ranked Charleston No. 4 this year behind San Francisco and Portland, Ore., based on its five-year output in the high-tech sector.

Although the industry is smaller in Charleston, it’s growing 26 percent faster than the national average.

“So, this growth will help you catch up, but you’re not there yet,” Ratnatunga said.

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Andrade said improvements in local education, new facilities and public investments will continue pushing the industry forward.

In the past five years, the city’s corridor initiative has built two Flagship business incubators to foster young tech-oriented firms. Also, the Harbor Accelerator launched in Mount Pleasant, and the number of efforts focused on high-tech education have multiplied, Andrade said.

“What this does is provide a tremendous amount of validation for all of the efforts and investments that have been made,” he said. “There is absolutely momentum, and what we have to do is guard against complacency. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.