Economy rebounds Forecast: Infrastructure, talent among challenges

A new economic forecast projects that passenger traffic at Charleston International Airport will rise by 3 percent this year and in 2014. JetBlue Airways, which began service at the airport recently, is expected to provide some of that lift.

Employment’s up. Home sales and home-building are up. Port container and airport passenger traffic are up.

Almost across the board, the Charleston economy seems to be recovering, if modestly, from the recent downturn. And despite military cuts that are sure to affect the Lowcountry, those trends are likely to remain positive in the next couple of years.

To ensure long-term prosperity, however, the metropolitan area must address its shortage of home-grown technically skilled workers and inadequate transportation infrastructure.

That was the official word Wednesday at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic outlook conference. Mary Graham, senior vice and head of the group’s Center for Business Research, declared that “economic growth has indeed returned to our region.”

Speaking before a packed ballroom at the Charleston Area Convention Center, Graham reported job growth of 1.5 percent for 2012 and predicted the same “conservative” uptick in 2013 and even less in 2014. That’s due to the inevitable belt-cinching ahead at the Pentagon. “Whether sequestration goes away or not, the Department of Defense is facing major cuts and those are going to impact Charleston,” she said.

On the real estate front, there were more home sales — and at higher prices — than Graham’s team forecast at this time last year, and more residential building permits, especially for apartments. She said those trends would continue, though not return to pre-recession levels in the near-term.

Port traffic has increased every year since 2009, and Graham predicted that will continue both for containerized cargo and for so-called break bulk cargo, like the Greer-made BMWs that ship out through the Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston. After a precipitous drop from 2007 to 2009, Graham said Charleston is beginning to “regain its position among the country’s top ports.”

At the airport, passenger traffic jumped after Southwest arrived in 2011, and Graham expects it to creep up at a rate of 3 percent annually through 2014, thanks in part to the launch of JetBlue’s service to New York and Boston.

While most of Graham’s report was rosy, she reiterated what have become common themes in any discussion about what is holding Charleston back as its population and global profile increases: “developing, attracting and retaining talent” and pressing ahead with projects such as harbor-deepening and road construction around Boeing’s 6,000-worker North Charleston plant. The chamber’s “Accelerate Greater Charleston” campaign, which was announced a year ago and has raised $4 million to date, is designed to help address those obstacles.

In a panel discussion, three local business people mostly concurred.

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Rebecca Guthrie of real estate software firm Boomtown said she has difficulty finding qualified people to hire, while Patrick Bryant of video production firm Go To Team said “we don’t have a lot of talent issues.”

Rebecca Ufkes of UEC Electronics said her Hanahan-based company experienced growth through defense contracts last year and had hoped that revenue stream would continue along with commercial work, such as with Boeing.

“But with everything going on,” Ufkes said, referring to defense cuts coming out of Washington, “I don’t expect that.”

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