(Editor’s Note: What follows is the second installment of a four-part series by guest columnist Ben Green aimed at charting a pathway forward for the Columbia, South Carolina Metropolitan Statistical Area as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic. As each of the next two installments are published on our news outlet in the coming days, we will be providing hyperlinks to the complete series below).
by BEN GREEN || Necessity is the mother of invention. Before the crisis, we were a fractured, divided MSA that was behind the curve. Since Covid-19 started, we’ve witnessed more unity, local support of businesses, and local pride in the Columbia MSA than ever before. Let’s keep this momentum going. Here’s how we can:
Richland County was founded in 1785. The City of Columbia was founded in 1786. After 235 years of separate operations, it’s time for an upgrade. Namely, it’s time to do analysis and consolidate all possible services. The City just bought 1401 Main Street to consolidate its offices and achieve greater efficiency. This is a brilliant move that should be commended. The City is looking for tenants.
I’ve found one: Richland County. It’s time to be bold and move many of Richland County’s operations from Hampton Street to 1401 Main Street. The savings estimates for a full Richland County/City of Columbia consolidation run as high as $100 million a year. And this would drive our commercial property tax rates way down.
This consolidation could be phased in over the next 4 years without an impact on jobs (could be done via attrition). $100 million per year pumped back into the region will make a tremendous difference.
Should it stop at Richland County and the City of Columbia? Possibly not. Over two decades ago, members of Cayce and West Columbia city councils considered merging. Both Cayce and West Columbia were flying high before Covid-19, but could they benefit from greater consolidation? Possibly.
In the 20-minute ride it takes to get from CAE airport to Arcadia Lakes, you can pass through as many as seven municipalities. In a post-Covid world, where budgets are squeezed, does this make sense?
Economic Impact for Richland County/ City of Columbia merger: $100 million in savings per year
Economic Development & Chamber of Commerce Marketing
I’ve worked with almost every economic development group in the state plus Charlotte. The Charlotte Partnership consolidated two years ago with the Charlotte Chamber to form the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, and they’re now poised for growth. Within our region, we have over 10 economic development agencies that operate with independent strategies and marketing targets.
If we maintain budgets, leave our egos at the door, call this region “Columbia,” and collaboratively focused our marketing dollars to recruit people and companies to region first, the ROI (return on investment) will be much greater. What’s the path forward to doing this? It’s time to put our Des Moines-inspired playbook into action. They’ve “invented the wheel” already. We just need to emulate their strategy.
There are more than a half dozen publicly funded incubators/ entrepreneurial service providers in this region. This is confusing for new entrepreneurs. Cities like Knoxville and Vancouver have developed one-stop-shops that streamline the process of getting entrepreneurs off the ground. We can copy them.
Education Collaboration Opportunities
In 2016, as Chair of the Midlands Education & Business Alliance, I, along with others, attempted to fund and implement a region wide Cradle to Career initiative. The financial ask of the business and education community was $250,000 per year to establish metrics, share best practices, and drive performance across seven school districts. We didn’t get it done, and our results have lagged the rest of the state ever since.
According to the SC State Department of Education, no school districts in Lexington or Richland counties achieved test scores that were average or better than the state average in all four major skills (reading, math, science, social studies). It’s time to reintroduce this initiative which can deliver measurable results and provide an enhanced ROI on the hundreds of millions we spend on education in the Columbia MSA every year.
Even according to USC’s own enrollment strategists, peak enrollment is expected to happen in 2026. Now 30,000+ students have been sent home all over the country plus to international markets.
Every day that students spend away from campus receiving instruction online is another day they can think about permanently receiving their college education this way at another school. If our local universities and colleges aren’t collaboratively working on differentiators to attract, develop, and retain the best talent in the country, they may be in for a dogfight over the next ten years.
Nonprofit Collaboration Opportunities
This is not just about money. When I graduated from Spring Valley High School and went to Morehouse, I felt like I hailed from the greatest region on the planet. When I lived in Tokyo and Madrid, I was proud to represent South Carolina and Columbia. When I returned to Columbia to attend one of the world’s best IMBA programs, I had the same feeling. I even recruited graduate students to USC. So when I saw the latest Gallup Wellbeing Index results, I was floored.
The Gallup Wellbeing Index provides a ranking of communities on components including Career, Social, Financial, Community, and Physical wellbeing. We scored lowest in the Southeast. Once again, we have a non-profit collaboration playbook (from other cities) on the shelf. It’s up to us to take action.
Immediate Actions to Take
The City of Columbia Council and the Richland County Council can form a joint task force to lead the consolidation effort, commission a study for the process, visit cities like Charlotte and Indianapolis that have gone through various consolidation processes, and implement the plan.
I, along with others, pledge to provide financial support this year for a report and game plan on the consolidation of Richland County and the City of Columbia. Furthermore, I pledge financial support from my business for the Cradle to Career effort.
The plan to streamline our economic development efforts is already done. It’s time to make it happen. If the City of Columbia has room after sharing resources with Richland County, it would serve this region well for the regional chambers, economic development groups (Central SC, Engenuity, Lexington County, etc.) and talent retention groups (COR, etc.) to all have representatives in the building.
In terms of timeline, now is not the time for “Analysis Paralysis” or an indefinite “study” of the work we must get done. On April 25th everyone in this metro will have to put an (803) area code in front of our phone numbers, because, after all, we’re now a large metro area. This date is perfect for everyone to make the mental switch to a regional approach. It’s also a perfect date to have these plans set. The economic trend is not our friend, but we have great control at the regional level. We must seize it. For those that will say that these moves are too aggressive or bold, you haven’t seen the latest jobless claims report. These moves may not be bold enough. This is why they must be combined with cuts.
(Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for installments III and IV in the days to come).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Ben Green is president and chief operating officer of Insurance Advantage. He’s a former South Carolina business recruiter who opened up the S.C. Department of Commerce’s Japanese office in 2012. Since then, South Carolina has received $2.5 billion in investment from Japan and Korea. Approximately four percent of that investment has been placed in the Midlands.