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Welders at the $500 million Mercedes-Benz Vans manufacturing campus in North Charleston help build Sprinter commercial vans. The Charleston region's diversified economy, including investments from the automotive industry, helped the area land at No. 16 on a recent "Best Performing Cities" report. Wade Spees/Staff/File

The Charleston region's economy has soared to 16th-best in the nation as cargo growth at the port and more than $1.6 billion in automotive industry investments have kept the area humming, a new report shows.

The latest ranking by the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, is up from No. 22 last year.

"Gas prices are down, tax reform should help with take-home pay, job growth is continuing, new graduates are finding jobs — put all that together and the economy looks pretty good," said Frank Hefner, an economist at the College of Charleston.

Hefner said all signs point to continued economic growth in the Charleston region and throughout South Carolina.

The Milken report says the Charleston area's diversified economy — which also boasts Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner assembly campus — will help to insulate the region from national economic shocks.

Strong income and population increases will support future growth in the three-county region, according to the group.

An average of 28 newcomers move to the region each day and the median family income shot up 27.6 percent between 2012-17 to $76,236 per year as advanced manufacturing helped raise the overall pay scale.

"It's coastal location makes the region a tourist destination and a retiree haven," Milken said of the Charleston region in its "Best Performing Cities" report.

Milken points out that more than one-third of the region's workers are employed in retail, education, health services or tourism industries.

"Moreover, the metro's well-established infrastructure, including railways and the Port of Charleston, makes it a destination for export-oriented industries," such as Volvo Cars, which recently started production at its $1.1 billion campus near Ridgeville, where S60 sedans are built.

The port is expected to announce another record for cargo moving through its terminals when its year-end figures are released Tuesday.

Another vehicle maker, Mercedes-Benz Vans, last year opened a $500 million manufacturing plant in North Charleston to build Sprinter commercial vans. Both Volvo and Mercedes-Benz Vans are attracting suppliers with more jobs to the area.

There are some downsides to all that growth, Milken reported. More people making more money means housing demand and prices are increasing, and that's pushing many low- to middle-income families farther from business centers.

Rising interest rates, stock market fluctuations, worker shortages and a trade war with China could slow the nation's — and, to an extent, this area's — economy.

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Calvin Blackwell, chair of the College of Charleston's economics department, has a less rosy view of the economy's future than Hefner.

"Many potential factors could lead to a recession," he said.

Milken uses metrics in nine economic categories — such as growth in wages and jobs and technological output — to evaluate the relative growth of the nation's 200 largest metro areas and 201 small cities.

The Provo-Urem, Utah, metro area retained its No. 1 ranking in this year's report, followed by San Jose, Calif., and Austin, Texas. San Francisco and Dallas rounded out the top five. Bend, Ore., was the top-ranked small city.

Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics, said the nation's interior is starting to see the benefits — and downsides — of economic growth as industries try to cope with workforce and cost pressures along the coast. 

"Tighter competition for talent and rising housing costs have pushed some firms to expand outside the big coastal centers, driving growth inland," Klowden said. "Now, Middle American cities are beginning to see some of the same problems — labor shortages, higher home prices and longer commutes."

Milken says the report, published annually since 1999, is intended to help businesses, investors, government officials and others monitor and evaluate how well their metro area is performing compared to the rest of the country. 

This story has been updated to correct the number of new residents moving to the Charleston region each day.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_