Bringing Business to the Midlands
Jeff Ruble, director of the Richland County Economic Development Office, spends every day bringing job-creating businesses to Richland County.
What is your background and that of the Richland County Economic Development Office?
Richland County’s Economic Development Office came as a result of a strategic plan commissioned by Richland County Council in 2009. The office was formed in 2011. Nelson Lindsay, then the director of economic development in Kershaw County, was hired as the first director. Nelson took a position at the South Carolina Department of Commerce in the fall of 2015, and I came to Richland County as the new director in November 2015.
Previously, I served as senior vice president for Global Business Development for the South Carolina Power Team, a group that represents the economic development interests of Santee Cooper and 20 electric cooperatives across the state. I spent my first 13 years recruiting companies to Richland County and other counties across the Midlands while working for Central SC Alliance, a group to which the Richland County previously outsourced all their economic development responsibilities.
What is the rundown on recent business announcements and the impact these companies will have for Richland County?
Richland County has enjoyed steady 1 to 2 percent growth for years, however, it had been a while since we landed a “marquis” project. Jushi, a Chinese fiberglass manufacturer, recently held a groundbreaking for a $300 million, 400-job facility that we are confident will continue to grow. We’ve also had promising discussions with potential suppliers and customers.
This new announcement bodes well for the county for a few reasons. First, it reinforces to our elected officials that making an investment in the creation of the economic development office and in a new industrial park was the right thing to do. Second, it sends a message to site selection consultants and our allies that we will be competitive. Lastly, this project came about through collaboration between the City of Columbia, SCANA and the SC Department of Commerce, which is a partnership upon which we can build.
What do you see as Richland County’s strengths for attracting business?
When I first accepted this position, it had been some time since I actively marketed Richland County, so I immediately went to work re-learning the assets of my community. What I learned is that we have a great deal to be thankful for here in Richland County.
Richland County boasts a solid economy, a strong quality of life, excellent infrastructure and one of the most educated workforces in South Carolina. Where else can you enjoy a national park, trout fish and kayak in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, and spend time on a 50,000-acre lake, all across the same county? We live in a great place –– one that we shouldn’t take for granted.
What are Richland County’s weaknesses?
While we have a great deal to love, we have our challenges, too. South Carolina has the highest industrial property tax rate in the nation, and Richland County is among the highest in South Carolina. Coupled with those high property taxes are comparatively high electric rates, the direct result of SCANA’s investment in new generation at V.C. Summer.
While we have tools to offset both items, we don’t know how often we are eliminated from consideration by companies that are looking for a new home due to these challenges.
What is being done to make Richland County even more competitive as a location for new business and the expansion of established businesses?
Business leaders are aware of the area’s challenges and have responded by conducting regular meetings in which companies doing business here are sitting down with elected officials from the City of Columbia, county and school districts to address tax rates. A separate group is meeting to help local governments streamline permitting and licensing processes.
Does Richland County and our area in general have a favorable tax and regulatory environment for incoming businesses?
Our tax and regulatory environment are challenges, but we are working to address these issues. But what’s perhaps often lost in this argument is that Richland County has invested in itself where many other counties have deferred that investment. Our institutions are a reflection of investment: our school districts are among the best in the state; the Columbia Museum of Art and the Richland County Library System are both up for national awards, and Riverbanks Zoo is the top gate attraction in South Carolina.
How does Richland County and the Midlands in general compare with the Greenville and Charleston areas in attracting business?
Richland County has long benefitted from an economy supported by state government, the University of South Carolina and Fort Jackson. Because of these huge economic engines, some argue that our region has become somewhat complacent in comparison to the Upstate and Charleston regions.
But, while we were perhaps overlooked in the past, our region has the assets to compete with regions both within and outside of our state. The key is to make sure we make and keep economic development as a priority, much like those other regions have done.
How important is the geographic location of Richland County with three interstate highways to attracting business development?
Richland County benefits immensely not only from a strong interstate system, but also from excellent hub-and-spoke arteries that make our county the second-best county for commuting times in South Carolina. So, logistics companies love us. And if you’ve fought morning commutes in Charlotte, Atlanta or even Charleston lately, you probably appreciate our road system, too.
What role does the airport have, if any, to attracting new business?
Visitors to the regions regularly compliment us on the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. While smaller than most “hub” airports, it’s clean, organized and easy to negotiate. But Richland County also benefits from its close proximity to Charlotte Douglas Airport. Either option compares favorably to fighting through traffic in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, only to deal with massive crowds and waits. Bigger isn’t always better.
What can the local government entities do to make this area more competitive?
At Richland County, we’ve embarked on a new mission we call “Moving to Excellence.” This initiative is essentially a continuous improvement program, where we never settle for just being “good,” and are instead constantly looking at our systems and processes and trying to find a better, more efficient way to deliver excellent customer service. This mindset, across all our local governments, is essential to providing a platform to grow our economy.
Has the multitude of various local governments become more cohesive in presenting a unified voice in attracting business or have they moved apart?
Over the years, I’ve witnessed regional cooperation ebb and flow, depending on the challenges the region has faced. But that’s no different from any region –– those challenges should be expected and a process put in place to deal with them.
One area I see that we could perhaps improve upon is to join forces to market and brand our community better. Charleston, for instance, understood that economic development is more than just numbers –– it’s about something marketers call “quality of place.” So they pooled monies from economic development and tourism to accomplish a goal that benefits both constituencies.
How does our workforce compare with other counties in this region of the country?
Our workforce in Richland County is among the best in the state. We have the highest educational attainment in South Carolina, the youngest population and numerous paths for furthering one’s education. Like many other communities, we are challenged with trying to match young people to employer’s needs. But I’m confident that as more quality job opportunities become available, our young people will respond positively.
Do we have a strong educational system in our area for attracting businesses?
One of our strongest pitches to new companies has always been Midlands Technical College. With more than 16,000 students, it is one of largest colleges in South Carolina and a primary asset in recruiting manufacturers. But we’ve often missed out on students graduating from USC and our other local colleges. One of the keys for our community going forward is to create more opportunities in Richland County to retain some of those talented new workers who have been moving to larger markets because of more job opportunities. We have great educational resources here; we just need to better capitalize on them.
Are we lacking in any particular areas?
Our community, like most across the United States, faces a gap between the kinds of jobs that are available and the skill sets of those seeking those jobs. One important area is STEM training, preparing our young people for jobs of the future because many of the jobs of the past are disappearing.
What role does state government play in attracting business to Richland County?
The single greatest ally Richland County has in recruiting business and industry is the South Carolina Department of Commerce. Commerce is involved in just about every project, new or expanding. Commerce is particularly important to our region because the state has an outsized role in incentivizing white-collar jobs, which is one of Richland County’s greatest opportunities.
How important are quality of life issues for companies contemplating an expansion to our area?
One of the biggest trends in economic development is an increasing focus on building vibrant communities where talented people want to live rather than recruiting business and hoping people will follow. So, quality of life is essential if we want to take advantage of our region’s strengths in insurance, software, technology and healthcare.
How do they define “quality of life,” and is our area competitive in that regard?
Quality of life is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But certain factors are consistent across the board, such as access to healthcare, quality education, safety, recreational opportunities and cost of living. In Richland County, we rank well in many of those metrics with the notable exception of crime. South Carolina fares poorly in this category, and it’s something our state should aspire to improve upon.
Does Richland County have any particular business clusters that are growing and creating synergies that will attract even more business?
One of the best recent announcements is from T Cube Solutions, an insurance technology company that began as a two-person operation in the USC Columbia Technology Incubator. This company’s rapid growth is capitalizing on a wealth of local talent in insurance technology and software programming. This is an example of the type of growth around a cluster that will define Richland County in years ahead.
How do you go about identifying a potential prospect and developing a dialog with them about expanding to Richland County?
Economic developers are often guilty of the old adage, “if it flies shoot it; if it lands claim it.” And we’re certainly no different. The goal, however, is to do a better job of understanding our unique strengths and then doing the hard work of finding the companies that would benefit from being here, and getting our message across. That’s definitely one of our focuses over the next few years.