The Charleston region's economy is growing at a faster rate this decade than any other South Carolina metro area, although its size still trails Greenville and Columbia, according to new report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The Charleston-North Charleston metro area — which includes Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties — grew its economy at a 15.2 percent clip between 2011 and 2016, the data show. Its inflation-adjusted gross domestic product — or the total value of goods and services produced within the region — totaled just under $34 billion in 2016.
College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said that growth signals a healthy economy — one that's neither too hot nor too lukewarm.
"This confirms what we already know — more people are moving here, there's more traffic congestion, there are more people working," Hefner said. "We've seen years of good, solid growth. This report confirms that, as a metro area, we're pretty vibrant."
The Greenville area — home to numerous manufacturers, including German automaker BMW — still has South Carolina's largest economy, with a GDP of nearly $35.8 billion.
The Columbia metro — with an economy heavy on state government, education and the military — is second, at about $35.3 billion.
But both of those areas have grown at an overall slower pace than Charleston since 2011 — Greenville at 11.4 percent and Columbia at 10.8 percent.
Last year alone, the Charleston region's economy grew at 3.1 percent — nearly double the 1.7 percent national average.
Construction is a main driver for all three of the state's largest economies, especially in greater Greenville where record levels of new industrial projects and other building activity accounted for nearly half of its growth in 2016.
Greenville's ties to the Charleston region — for example, an inland port in Greer that connects the area with the Port of Charleston — are creating industrial construction synergies for both markets, according to CBRE, a big commercial real estate firm. Manufacturing campuses in the Lowcountry for companies like Boeing and Volvo Cars are attracting suppliers to the Upstate.
That trend and the Charleston region's fast-growing and increasingly upscale housing boom helped construction account for nearly one-fifth of the local economic growth in 2016.
New construction spurs the need for more real estate agents, mortgage companies and insurance firms, and those professions accounted for another 20 percent of the region's economic boost last year.
But the biggest growth sector in the Charleston region in 2016 was professional and business services — a wide-ranging catch-all of job categories that includes lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects and others. That segment accounted for better than 30 percent of this area's growth last year.
"Charleston has the whole package when it comes to broad-based economic growth," said Joey Von Nessen, an economist at the University of South Carolina. "Manufacturing is still leading the way, but Charleston also has a very strong construction market."
Von Nessen said disposable income and consumer spending are rising at a time when gas prices are still relatively cheap and that has led to growth in the Charleston area's tourism businesses. Higher wages and more jobs also are leading to an emerging demand in the second-home market, helping to fuel residential real estate sales.
"We see construction everywhere in Charleston," he said. "The demand is there both for the residential and the commercial side."
Six of South Carolina's eight metro areas saw growth last year, with economies in the Florence and Sumter areas the only ones to contract.
Nationwide, total GDP grew in 267 of the nation's 382 metro areas in 2016
The New York metro area had the biggest economy in the U.S. at about $1.4 trillion, followed by Los Angeles, at $885 billion.
Although small by comparison, the economies in Bend, Ore., and Lake Charles, La., were the nation's fastest-growing with 8.1 percent jumps.