Columbia Growing, but Competition is Growing Faster

Richard Breen

Thursday, January 30th, 2020

Columbia’s economy continues to grow, but it’s also falling behind peer cities in key metrics.

EngenuitySC released its 2019-20 Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report on Monday during an event at Central Energy. The sixth annual report measured the Columbia metro against nine peers across five categories:


Innovative capacity

Entrepreneurial and business environment

Industry clusters


“We are growing, we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not growing as much as our peer regions,” said Dr. Joseph Von Nessen, the University of South Carolina economist who complied and analyzed the data.

The Midlands ranked seventh or worse in four of the five categories when compared to its nine peers. It fared best for its entrepreneurial and business environment, where it ranked third for the second straight year.

“Our business environment in Columbia is very strong,” Von Nessen said. Growth in the overall number of businesses in general and job growth in businesses services such as accounting and law in particular played a role.

In industry clusters, the Midlands remained in ninth place.

“This is perhaps the weakest area,” Von Nessen said. He said the region has a strong insurance cluster but needs more job growth among industries that produce products for national/global markets.

The Midlands ranked 10th for talent.

“Relatively speaking, we have been slipping a bit,” Von Nessen said. The report mentioned that while the region is producing college graduates, many are leaving for jobs elsewhere.

The Midlands moved up to seventh from eighth place in two categories – innovative capacity and livability. Innovative capacity measures items such as research spending and the number of people with graduate degrees.

While South Carolina has a strong military presence, the study stated the Midlands had captured minimal amounts of military R&D spending. New University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen, an EngenuitySC board member, has said growing that share will be a priority.

On livability, Von Nessen pointed to Columbia’s last-place ranking in one of the category’s components – the Gallup Well-Being Index. Gallup describes the index as a measurement of Americans’ perceptions of their lives and daily experiences.

Von Nessen said Midlands residents should look at their region as a product, and self-perception plays a role.

“Columbia is selling itself,” he said. “It has competitors, it has customers and it has all of these people interacting.”

Jay Byers said he was impressed by some of the research that went into the report.

“Data is everything in economic development,” said Byers, who is chief executive of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “Being able to have an honest assessment is really powerful.”

Byers gave a presentation describing his Iowa organization’s efforts in economic and community development. He mentioned efforts by Des Moines to collaborate with Iowa State University, which is 30 miles away, and compared it to Columbia having the state’s flagship university downtown.

“It’s an amazing asset that most regions would love to have,” he said.

He said his organization’s first public relations campaign was aimed at improving self-perception among locals.

“Community pride drives everything,” Byers said.

The nine peer communities in the Midlands report were:

Augusta, Georgia


Greensboro, North Carolina


Knoxville, Tennessee

Lexington, Kentucky

Raleigh, North Carolina

Tallahassee, Florida

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

More than a decade ago, Greenville began compiling an “economic scorecard” using many of the same metrics as Columbia and comparing itself to some of the same metros. It has since moved to other data-collection projects, but economic development groups in Charleston completed their annual scorecard in November.

Comparing itself to eight peer communities (mostly million-plus metros such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Salt Lake City, Utah), Charleston ranked itself sixth in economy (business and entrepreneurship growth), sixth in livability (housing, commuting, parks), eighth in talent and eighth in well-being (an income-driven metric).

Has Columbia missed out on an opportunity while its peer cities take greater advantage of a record-length U.S. economic expansion?

“We need to be more proactive so we don’t miss out,” Von Nessen said. “I’m very bullish on South Carolina and the Southeast. Columbia has a great opportunity to be a part of that.”

One of Columbia’s virtues is a stable economy led by government, education and military employment. Von Nessen said that nationally, export-oriented manufacturing is where the recent growth has been, however.

“Columbia just hasn’t tapped into that market as well,” he said.

Carl Blackstone, president and chief executive of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the good news is the Midlands has a number of assets and the competitiveness report provides a roadmap.

“Do we always maximize those assets? Not always,” he said. “But there’s energy we haven’t seen in this region in a long time.”