Economic development without borders: the role of cities in regional alliances

by Jeff McKay, SC Economic Developers' Association

Regional alliances have become commonplace in economic development, and cities play an important role in these modern job-creation engines.

A little more than a decade ago, the concept of regionalism was still a cutting-edge economic development theory in some places. The idea that strategies could be coordinated among several cities and counties, making each more effective at job creation, was sometimes met with skepticism.

How would cities and counties that have been rivals in everything from industrial recruitment to high school football work together to help create jobs?

But today, as one looks around South Carolina--and almost all other states where job creation is a priority--you will find an array of regional economic development alliances. Each serves a different group of cities and counties and each has a custom-designed strategy for attracting investment and growing its employment base.

In South Carolina, many of these regional alliances have formed around familiar geographic markers: the Upstate, Midlands, Northeastern, Lowcountry, etc.

But as one looks at these regional alliances more closely, one will also see that cities frequently serve as a hub around which these coalitions are built. As Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt wrote in a previous edition of Cities Mean Business: "Cities and towns are the center that defines an area. They are the soul of a region and of our state."

Just as major employers such as Boeing or BMW attract workers from throughout an entire region, cities are a magnet for business.

Cities often are home to regional amenities: airports, entertainment facilities, higher education, hospitals, financial and legal services, shopping and dining, the list goes on. Interstate highways form key logistical intersections near cities such as Columbia, Florence and Spartanburg.

In addition to transportation infrastructure, cities and towns that have more robust water and sewer infrastructure are also vital to economic development.

And while many manufacturing and distribution prospects seek large tracts of land that are hard to find inside municipal boundaries, there is a national economic development trend that specifically involves cities. In recent years, companies in the high-tech and services sectors have been moving their suburban headquarters and back-office facilities to downtown locations.

Another recent economic development trend has been talent recruitment. Numerous studies and experts have pointed out that young professionals are seeking to live in areas that have a defined sense of place appealing to their specific lifestyles, both at work and at play.

Among a recent round of funding from the Department of Commerce's Community Development Block Grant program were grants for streetscaping projects in the towns of Abbeville, Liberty and Walterboro. As cities enhance their downtowns and hone their unique sense of place (similar to something we in South Carolina have long referred to as "quality of life"), they will play an important role in attracting the entrepreneurs that create jobs throughout a region.

The results of all this activity are symbiotic. Workers may be employed at a facility in one town, live in another, and shop in a third. A manufacturing plant may be located in a rural area, but its management may live in the county seat. A regional headquarters in a downtown area may draw workers from several adjacent counties.

When corporate executives are looking at various locations to expand their business, they may use a city name as a shorthand reference to a metro area that includes smaller municipalities and unincorporated suburbs. Or they may be speaking of an entire multi-county region.

Either way, economic development does not stop at a city or county line. And South Carolina's cities play a role beyond their borders in spurring job creation throughout the Palmetto State.

Jeff McKay is executive director of the Northeastern Strategic Alliance and president of the SC Economic Developers" Association.