CMA CGM Port of Charleston

A container ship from the CMA CGM shipping group arrives at the Port of Charleston. A new report by the Milken Institute calls the port an important factor in maintaining the Charleston region's economic health. Provided/State Ports Authority

The Charleston metro area remained one of the nation's top places for economic development in 2017, although it fell six spots in the annual Milken Institute rankings released last week.

The "Best Performing Cities" report ranked the Charleston metro area — which includes Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties — at No. 22, down from No. 16 the previous year.

The updated study cited a decline in short-term job growth as one reason for the drop, but added the region "has been among the top 40 in our ranking since 2005, showing a stable economic performance in the recent decade."

The percentage growth in the value of the Charleston area's nascent high-tech industry ranked third nationally, the best showing for any individual category that was measured. But the base for that growth was small, with the number of sector jobs ranking 118th out of the 200 metros studied.

While the sector — which includes software supplier Blackbaud Inc. and the defense-focused Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center-Atlantic — is still relatively small, it is growing at about twice the national rate, adding "high value-added jobs (and) enhancing the metro's economic health."

The report also cited improvements at the Port of Charleston as a key to maintaining the region's economic health. The State Ports Authority, along with state and federal governments, is spending more than $2 billion on harbor deepening, a new container terminal, a second inland port and other projects to take advantage of bigger ships moving more cargo through the expanded Panama Canal.

"The port makes this metro an important regional logistics hub and has attracted many export-oriented industries to the region," Milken said, pointing to vehicle makers like Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans — both of which are completing manufacturing campuses in the region — as key components to future growth.

The export-oriented economy also is seen as a potential liability, however, because it is susceptible to future global economic downturns.

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Boeing Co., which assembles its 787 Dreamliner commercial jet in North Charleston, drew mixed reviews in the report. While the aerospace giant remains one of the region's top employers, with about 6,800 workers and contractors, Boeing is "facing strong competition from Airbus (and) has been cutting costs by downsizing employment," Milken said.

The Provo-Orem, Utah, metro area was ranked the best-performing area in this year's report. That region "is home to Brigham Young University, a top technology transfer institution that has helped create a vibrant high-tech economy," the report states.

Other South Carolina regions included the Spartanburg metro area, home to automaker BMW, at No. 36 and Columbia at No. 94. Florence and Sumter were included among the small metro rankings, at Nos. 74 and 114, respectively.

The rankings are based on metrics in nine categories measuring growth in jobs, wages, salaries and technology output. The annual report is aimed at helping communities determine which regional economic development strategies are working and what areas need improvement.

"Metropolitan areas are crucial drivers of growth in the American economy, taking different paths to prosperity depending on their industry mix, policy choices and available resources," Kevin Klowden, Milken's executive director, said in a statement. "Our goal is to help businesses, investors, industry associations, development agencies, government officials, academics and public policy groups monitor and evaluate how well their region is adapting to and planning for both current and future economic trends."

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