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Cities Nurture a Tech-friendly Economy

As technology-related jobs and opportunities to work remotely continue to expand, cities and towns around the state are looking for ways to make themselves attractive to the growing pool of tech workers.
That can mean providing meeting space options, offering coworking space where people from different companies can work, organizing training sessions or meet-up sessions for entrepreneurs or making sure the city has a dependable wireless network.
In Myrtle Beach, the push to bring life and energy to the downtown and create opportunities for year-round residents led to the creation of an arts and innovation district. The idea was to be intentional about diversifying the tourist city’s economy and job base, said Brian Tucker, Myrtle Beach’s assistant city manager.
The city created a Technology Advisory Group to help Myrtle Beach look both internally at the city’s ability to leverage technology and externally for ways to “create a more innovation-based ecosystem,” Tucker said. 
Officials gather for the ribbon cutting of the HTC Aspire Hub, a space where 
entrepreneurs can lease office space and have meetings. Photo: City of Myrtle Beach.
At the same time, vacant, dilapidated and underutilized buildings in the city’s center were purchased by the City of Myrtle Beach. The timing was perfect to use one of those buildings to create the HTC Aspire Hub, a building where local entrepreneurs can lease desk space and have rooms for meetings and networking. There also are programs and activities that offer information on building networks and skillsets.
The city partnered with Horry Telephone Cooperative in creating the space, and leased it to eMYRge, a nonprofit that manages the space.
“It’s important because we’re in this period where jobs are more mobile and companies are mobile. Building an economy around the manufacturing industry is great and fine, but it ignores that so many jobs are mobile,” Tucker said. “So, we’re carving out a space to say, ‘This is for you; we realize the value of having you in our community.’”
Myrtle Beach has the ocean itself as a major draw for residents, but a city can’t solely rely on its geography.
“People like to vacation at the beach, but a lot of folks don’t want to live in a purely tourist space. So, we are working to create places for permanent residents — a performing arts center, other amenities that you want next to you,” he said. 
Farther down the coast, Beaufort followed a model in Charleston to diversify the city’s economic base by attracting, nurturing and promoting high-wage tech jobs and companies as a way to attract and retain young people. 
The Beaufort Digital Corridor provides office space for tech startups and remote workers. 
Photo: Beaufort Digital Corridor. 
This led to the Beaufort Digital Corridor, a city-sponsored nonprofit, that provides office space for tech startups and desks for remote workers. 
“Collaboration breeds more success than competition. When you view someone as a competitor, there is a take-down mentality that closes doors and opportunities. The opposite happens when you view every interaction as a chance to learn and grow,” said Jess O’Brien, executive director of the Beaufort Digital Corridor.
The Beaufort Digital Corridor came from a collaboration among the City of Beaufort, the county’s Economic Development Association, the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Technical College of the Lowcountry. The city received one of the first Municipal Association of SC Hometown Economic Development Grants in 2016 that helped fund the Corridor’s startup costs.
The nonprofit invites public and business owners to free monthly networking events — whether they are in the tech field or work outside the industry. 
“These interactions encourage outside-of-the-box thinking to everyday challenges,” O’Brien said.
Last year, the Beaufort Digital Corridor hosted the area’s first Startup Weekend. This year it is building a pitch program to provide a podium for tech entrepreneurs to practice and get feedback to help refine their pitches to investors. 
In the Midlands, Columbia has focused on nurturing technology, talent and innovation, with the city and the University of South Carolina working together to make Columbia attractive to entrepreneurs. The USC Technology Incubator, for example, has been in place for about 20 years.
Ryan Coleman is the director of Columbia Economic Development, the agency that serves as a catalyst for businesses, developers, investors and partners focused on growing an innovation economy. He said economic development recruitment in cities is different from counties: cities typically aren’t building industrial parks and recruiting manufacturing jobs. Rather, cities often seek office jobs that feed the knowledge economy.
“Technology jobs are a little more conducive to what you find in an urban environment — office space, incubators, a walkable environment with restaurants and retail,” Coleman said.
Coleman noted technology firms are difficult to recruit in today’s environment, since many tech workers are performing remote and hybrid work.
“What you see here is the focus has shifted to growing what’s in our backyard. Focus on what’s here,” he said. 
And Columbia has benefitted from having local tech company founders and boosters already in the city.
“It needs to be a founder-led effort. You have to bring these people together. They need to be champions themselves,” he said. “It’s the businesses that lead the charge, and we’re there to support them.”
Sometimes, it’s about making sure the infrastructure is in place to allow people to use the technology. That’s what happened in Newberry, where a lack of high-speed internet access made the area less attractive for businesses and residents. The need for fast internet became especially important during the pandemic, when so many workers and students pivoted to remote work and schooling.
The city decided to create its own network, becoming the state’s first municipality to build and run a fiber-optic network to serve residents and businesses. 
The City of Newberry built a fiber-optic network and partnered with telecommunications 
company WCFiber to light the fiber. Photo: City of Newberry. 
“It has helped to attract new business. Additionally, it has attracted new community development investments and allowed for more families to consider Newberry as a viable work-from-home option, where prior it was not due to slow internet speeds,” said Matt DeWitt, Newberry’s city manager. 
Tim Baker, Newberry’s utility director, said the original business plan was modeled with a “take rate” for fiber services of 15%. It is now higher than 35% and continues to grow.
“Owning and operating a municipal electric system made our project much easier and our build out much faster.  If you do not operate your electric system, I would recommend coordinating with your local electric utility provider before starting the project to see if there are any areas where you can collaborate and work together,” Baker said.
DeWitt credits Newberry’s partnership with WC Fiber as one of the reasons the project was so successful. 
“There are very few municipal projects I have seen that don’t receive a great deal of public criticism, and honestly, I can say I have never heard a bad word spoken about the city’s efforts in building and partnering to light the fiber network,” DeWitt said. “Since lighting the network, I think more business and families are seeing Newberry as a viable, and even preferred, option. We feel like we are creating the perfect mix of small Southern charm with the amenities you have come to expect from a much larger city.”
Whether it’s the technological changes brought about by the pandemic or simply the growing need to lure tech jobs, the technology field is an increasingly powerful way for cities to bolster their economy, and many are finding ways to make it happen.