Monday, February 11, 2008

No State Capitol, Air Force Academy nor Interstate

I almost called today’s blog “The Patriot”, which is one of my favorite all-time movies and one that I’ve watched numerous times. In it, Mel Gibson starred as a South Carolina patriot in rousting the British in the Revolutionary War. One of the heroes he modeled his character after was General Thomas Sumter, nicknamed the Fighting Gamecock for his fighting prowess despite his small stature. He founded Sumter, SC (population 39,643) where I was for a full day of tours and the Chamber’s very unique retreat.

Sumter has had some very near misses over the years, missing out on becoming the state capitol (it is in the geographic center of SC) by one vote in the state legislature and being a finalist for home of the U. S. Air Force Academy. It did win an air force base in WWII, Shaw AFB, that has grown into the major economic driver in the area. Shaw has survived each of the BRAC closing commissions, grown each time and was chosen as the new headquarters for the 3rd Army which is moving from Ft. McPherson, GA (Atlanta).

With 15,582 personnel at Shaw and an estimated 6,000 military retirees, the economic impact of a base like Shaw is impressive for a community. Counting in those retirees that impact is estimated to have grown from about $400 million per year in 1990 to $1.1 billion in 2006 and should grow to over $1.3 billion with the new army headquarters.

Sumter took a number of hits in the 2000s after having great economic success during the 90s. Mayor Joseph McElveen told me, “We were flying high in the 90s and were a star in the state, averaging 1 new industrial job/day. Our manufacturing jobs grew to 30% of the workforce. We added not just one, but two Caterpillar plants. But our lower end jobs, especially in the furniture industry started to leave and now we are down to only 22% of our jobs in manufacturing.”

Several local citizens recently began putting a push on turning around the slide in industrial jobs and my talks with them left me with a very good impression of both their plan of attack and their determination to succeed.

A common lament that I heard from a number of people that I interviewed was, “If only the interstate had come closer to the town rather than being 15 miles away.” One of the points that I tried to make in my talk the next day was that not only wasn’t there anything that they could do about the routing of the interstates in 2008, but that they had to work around that perceived negative. I also pointed out that, even though I thought that interstates were going to be critical factors in success, when we finished our research on BoomtownUSA, we found that 59 of our top 100 agurbs® were over 25 miles from an interstate.

It’s all state of mind and finding what your positives are and then leveraging them to your advantage. I’ll explore a number of those positives in Sumter all this week in my blogs.

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