A new attitude is prevailing among those trying to foster economic development in South Carolina. Fading are the old days of nearby cities competing for the attention of potential industries. Today many of the state’s cities are focusing on cooperation, not competition.
Related businesses are working both with each other and with local governments to enhance existing businesses and attract new ones. Each grouping of entities that focus on or service the same industry is known as a cluster.
Although the groups share a consumer base, clusters are not about competing. They are about collaboration in an effort to improve the collective economy of the region and the foundation of each cluster’s specific niche industry.
Championing the clusters movement is New Carolina, South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness. New Carolina is a public-private partnership focused on increasing the per capita income in the state and driving economic development to compete successfully with other states.
According to New Carolina executive director George Fletcher, "Clusters help bring more companies, more jobs and more economic impact to a region. They enhance workforce development by identifying industry needs and creating higher-skilled, higher-earning jobs. They help retain a community’s top talent, and they help raise the profile of a region’s assets. Think Silicon Valley for computers, Napa Valley for wine and Detroit for automotive."
New Carolina has helped to form both statewide and regional clusters. The statewide clusters are mostly South Carolina’s traditional industries (tourism, textiles, agribusiness, and apparel).
Agribusiness is traditionally one of the biggest drivers of South Carolina’s economy, and the agribusiness cluster is working to ensure that it does not slow down any time soon. According to the SC Department of Commerce, "South Carolina’s agriculture and forest industry represent one of, if not the largest industry cluster in the state. With an economic value of $33.9 billion, agriculture and forestry together have the greatest impact on our state’s economy and it is green. It reaches every corner of the state and extends far beyond the boundaries of the farm and forest."
"The Agribusiness cluster brings together companies within the same sector in South Carolina that realize their real competition is not local or domestic, but global," said Bob Scott, president of the South Carolina Forestry Association and co-leader of the state’s agribusiness cluster. "By working together, these companies can more effectively compete in the global market."
"The agribusiness cluster may be the one that can have the quickest, most dramatic impact on our economy," commented Darla Moore, New Carolina executive board member and chairman of the Palmetto Institute. "But it will only be successful if we have a thoughtful, innovative strategy."
The cluster concept is not just for big cities; it connects cities and towns of all sizes to promote regional economic growth.
One of the fastest growing clusters in the state is the engineering cluster. Formed less than a year ago, the cluster already has more than 160 organizations within its membership. It works with the state’s universities to promote engineering as a career choice and attempts to grow the state’s engineering industry. According to New Carolina, "The engineering industry in the state of South Carolina represents hundreds of companies and thousands of engineers. South Carolina engineers have designed major projects around the world in almost every industry. These industries include electronics, automotive, chemical, biotech, energy, infrastructure and a lot more."
The engineering cluster includes many businesses from Columbia and Greenville, but also firms like UEC Electronics in Hanahan, The Technology Consortium in Piedmont, and dozens of other companies based in small towns. Clustering is a way for companies in smaller towns to collaborate with those in large cities to promote the health of the industry as a whole.