(Editor’s Note: What follows is the fourth 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 installment is published on our news outlet, we will be providing hyperlinks to the complete series below).
by BEN GREEN || “The next 30 years will be the most globally competitive in history, while also being some of the most financially stressful years in decades for young people. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or where you are in the world. If you don’t recognize this reality and work hard to meet the competition at a high level, you’re going to get crushed. There is no room for the mediocre middle anymore.”
-Excerpt from the book “The Global Superstar: How Your Students Can Develop An Advantage Over Global Competition.”
The third step in the Columbia Comeback involves intermediate to long-term solutions (over the next 3 – 10 years) that must begin today. Among other initiatives, we must create more academic and entrepreneurial superstars that are ready to successfully navigate global challenges. We must create more export-based businesses to diversify our financial flows. And we must help the State improve its infrastructure, and create a world-class business and environmental infrastructure in the Columbia MSA.
Create an Environment and Expectation of Excellence for all Students
We have to thoroughly educate all children in our public and private schools. Educators take a lot of heat, but they can’t always perform magic tricks. Students get 25% of their teaching in schools. The other 75% comes from parents, churches, mentors, and communities. The most efficient way to coordinate all stakeholders and develop a pipeline of career-ready superstars is through a data-driven, metric-focused framework like Cradle to Career. The Columbia crime rate and our faltering economy dictate that we can’t afford to fail our students anymore. The excuses for failure must stop.
Create and Foster More Companies with Export Potential
The USC Moore School of Business is still ranked in the top 5 in the country for international business. Additionally, I have ex-colleagues at both the SC Department and US Department of Commerce that are ready to help Columbia-based companies develop markets overseas. To bring new money into the region, diversify our economic base, and give companies equal footing with companies from export-driven economies like China, we must use higher education, government, and startup resources to support them as much as possible. Our local delegations can help secure these resources.
We also need to re-examine the opportunities that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) held for this region (and state). The TPP would have potentially provided large export opportunities to some of our more friendly trade partners. For this reason, it’s worth another look.
Create Greater Regional Manufacturing Capabilities
From a national security level, the entire country got caught flat-footed when it comes to the manufacturing of ventilators and PPE (personal protective equipment). This region can lead the charge in restoring this manufacturing capability.
Create an Environment of Hyper-Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is at a 40-year low in this country. Our region can lead the way in reversing this trend.
We must highlight and support companies in growing industries like Nephron Pharmaceuticals. And we must multiply the number by 10 of successful entrepreneurs in the Columbia MSA over the next decade. If we do this, our economy will get back to average performance by 2030, and become a premier region by 2040. Particularly in the City of Columbia/ Richland County, entrepreneurship is more difficult due to:
- Commercial and property taxes
- Business fees
- Water tap fees
- Ambivalence towards entrepreneurs relative to havens like Austin or Raleigh
We must work with the entrepreneurial nonprofits, K-12 and higher education, the chambers of commerce, and local government to blast the barriers away for entrepreneurs, and raise calculated risk takers to a new level of importance in our economy. Knoxville, Vancouver, and Chattanooga all offer playbooks we can rip pages from to quicken the pace of this effort.
Individual entrepreneurs & small businesses: Solutions
I’ve talked to many businesses and citizens about these solutions. Like many others, I’ll continue to provide financial support and time to organizations and efforts that drive this region forward.
I, along with others, will lead the charge on local government consolidation to save businesses money.
Like many others, I’ll continue to provide financial and other support to education efforts in the region, especially in the fields of early childhood education and special education.
And for the business owners and leaders in the region, perhaps the most impactful things we can do are to grow our businesses, put people to work, and develop the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Create & Campaign for More Infrastructure Investment
The structural changes that must be made to our local government and economic development infrastructure, particularly in Richland County and the City of Columbia, have been addressed.
At the Federal level, the third phase of the US government’s response to the Covid-19 economic crisis will be rolled out over the next three months. However, President Trump and others are already thinking about a Phase 4 economic response. Phase 4 may provide funds for longer-term investments like infrastructure.
Additionally, the SC State budget may be in flux for the next 2-3 years as we recover from this economic shock. It’s critical for our regional municipalities, economic development groups, state and federal representatives to present a united front on infrastructure needs we must address. These include:
Road Infrastructure: Locally the SC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) controls large portions of the region’s roads – and our region’s roads need attention. Our local delegation must coordinate with our economic development team to address DOT and make sure our road infrastructure needs are met.
I-26 Upgrades: On the federal level, we need to repave I-26 from Columbia to Charleston. Our councils and regional economic development teams must work with our local legislators, along with our friends in Orangeburg & the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, to request funding for this project.
I-95 Upgrades: Another item that affects public safety and logistics is expansion of 1-95 from the Georgia line to the intersection with I-26. This expansion would benefit the Columbia MSA along with counties along 1-95 including our friends at the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance, so we need to reach across the aisle to these regions to ensure this happens.
Cycling/Pedestrian Infrastructure: We have greenways, river walks, and other resources that haven’t been fully optimized. When I attended Morehouse, Atlanta’s traffic sucked. It still sucks, but what the city has done with The Atlanta Beltline (former railway that is now a multi-use trail throughout the city) & the Ponce City Market area has been nothing short of remarkable. The Beltline is a former railway that is now a heavily-used, pedestrian-friendly trail throughout the city. It has brought a major improvement in quality of life and has attracted billions of dollars in investment. Can we get our own Beltline done?
Telecom/Internet Infrastructure: During Covid-19 and beyond, communities with fast Internet speeds will win more business, retain more talent, and attract more diversified economic development projects. An example is Chattanooga, which, in 2015, implemented the world’s first community-wide 10-gig Internet service. We must coordinate with telecom providers and local/federal legislators to gain this same type of advantage and provide opportunity to every corner of the Columbia MSA.
Public Safety Infrastructure: The City of Columbia and Richland County saw sharp increases (50%+) in murders and violent crimes in 2018-2019. The MSA as a whole was ranked 9 out of 10 (2nd worst) among Southeastern peers for violent crime. Simply put, we need more technology, more coordination, and probably 2x the current number of law enforcement feet on the street. Official consolidation & coordination between Richland County/City of Columbia can fix some of this. Our federal delegation can potentially help us to find funding to do this as well.
Water/Sewer Infrastructure: 5 years after the 2015 flood, we still don’t have full water security, and we still have a lot of investment to make in our water and sewer systems. If Phase 4 comes about and includes water/sewer infrastructure, we must be ready to request it.
The Game Changer: Rail Infrastructure & The SEHSR (Southeastern High Speed Rail Line):
Never heard of the SESHR? You’re not alone. The Columbia MSA is behind the 8 ball on this one, but we can stage a comeback. The SESHR is currently slated to come from DC->Raleigh->Charlotte->Greenville and/or Spartanburg->Atlanta->Montgomery with a potential spur coming through Columbia and Savannah.
If we can get a commitment from relevant stakeholders (Federal & State Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, etc.) to run the SEHSR from Charlotte to Columbia (and then on to Charleston or Savannah), this will be a game changer.
This is a crazy idea, right? What’s crazy is that we’ve been sitting on regional plans for a Charlotte to Columbia high speed rail line since 2006. Want to hear something even more insane? The cost estimate in 2006 was only $61 million.
When we bring the Richland County Penny Tax back from furlough, we can fund this in 2 years by ourselves. Or we can get help from the Feds and our neighbors. The Mayor of Charlotte is a Columbia native, and she’s nice. Richland County is a member of the I-77 Alliance, which is run by a mentor of mine from SC Commerce. So a Charlotte to Columbia high-speed railway isn’t a space-aged idea. We can make it happen soon.
To fully understand the impact of what a high-speed rail line could mean for our region, I’ll commit to leading a delegation of interested politicians and citizens to Tokyo to learn about the economic impacts of rail. Or we can take a much shorter field trip to Charlotte and have a beer while we study light rail.
A simple Charlotte to Columbia line, or an SEHSR line from Charlotte through Columbia on to Charleston, would spur rounds of investment that would be unrivaled in regional history. In fact, the SESHR project could be the single most important economic development project in SC history. All aboard!
Immediate actions to take
To optimize the use of taxpayer dollars for education, we must finish the job and implement Cradle to Career across the region in the next 6 months.
EngenuitySC and other groups are already working on a one-stop shop entrepreneurial concept. We can complete it and roll it out in the next 2 months. We can incorporate export resources in this one-stop concept. And everyone in this region can buy local and support our local businesses.
Finally, our collaborative municipalities, economic development teams, and state/federal legislators must lead the charge to set the agenda for a Phase 4 infrastructure bill that can boost Columbia’s regional economy and improve economic development opportunities across South Carolina.
Of particular importance is the planning & funding of high-speed rail that will come through Columbia.
Why we will succeed
We’re going to do all of this, individually and collectively, because, after decades of malaise and division in this region, failure is not an option. This moment calls on all of us to act with focus and urgency.
The COVID-19 crisis presents one of the greatest challenges ever, but it also provides us with the greatest opportunity we’ve had in 30 years to jumpstart this economy. We’re ready for the challenge, so let’s take action today. And let’s celebrate our regional success as we meet these challenges head on.
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.
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