FLORENCE, S.C. – Record low unemployment is being reported in South Carolina’s northeastern counties as the region’s economy strengthened again in 2019.
According to the North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA) – the nonprofit regional economic development group serving the Pee Dee and Grand Strand regions – the region had $572 million in new investment in 2019, as well as the creation of 1,100 new jobs. This most recent economic growth comes on the heels of regional unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) hitting an all-time low for the area of 2.1 percent in September 2019.
“We have always hoped to reach a level where unemployment was this low, but I don’t think even in our wildest dreams we believed we would actually get here,” said Yancey McGill, a former S.C. lieutenant governor and NESA executive committee chairman.
While the region’s unemployment ticked up slightly at the close of the year, finishing at 2.5 percent in November according to BLS, McGill said 2019 was one of the best years for development since NESA was founded in 2001.
The NESA region, which includes Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Horry, Georgetown, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties, had some of the state’s highest unemployment rates over the past decade and at the height of the recession.
“Looking back, it’s hard to believe we had an unemployment rate of almost 16 percent just a few short years ago,” McGill said.
The sharp decline in unemployment has resulted in higher wages for area residents. With an ever tightening labor pool, companies have begun increasing wages to recruit and retain skilled workers. The result is an increase in the average annual wages of 3.2 percent in 2019, outperforming the state’s wage growth rate of 2.9 percent.
The region has reported growth in other areas as well. The real gross regional product – the value of all final goods and services produced in the region – has increased 2.8 percent annually over the past six years, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s higher than the national growth rate of 2.4 percent.
In 2019, the region had 23 companies announce either expansions (12) or new locations (11).
“There were so many exciting announcements in 2019,” McGill said. “We need to take a moment and congratulate and commend each of these companies for making investments in our communities. We also need to thank everyone who put in the hard work behind the scenes including the counties and individual economic developers who were involved in making these announcements possible.”
Looking forward, McGill said 2020 is a little more difficult to forecast.
“It is an election year, which typically means slower activity as companies are more willing to wait and see what happens before they make any large scale decisions,” he said. “Unemployment being at record lows is an excellent thing, but it also leads to its own list of potential problems and workforce availability questions have become inevitable.”
Despite these cautious expectations, the region has already had four new announcements in 2020. Huber Engineered Woods LLC, Pee Dee Extractors, LLC, Georgia-Pacific, and GreenCore Materials have already announced plans to invest a combined $187.9 million, creating 129 new jobs in the process.
McGill said he is excited interest in the region continues to grow and is looking forward to making 2020 another great year for the region.
COUNTY BY COUNTY UPDATES AND OUTLOOKS
Unemployment Rate: 2.1% (↓ 0.8 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $37,464
2019 announcement totals: 4
2019 in review: “Even though it appeared things were slow, we stayed very busy in 2019,” Chesterfield County Economic Development Executive Director Kim Burch said. “We keep trying to stay ahead of the game to be prepared for potential development.
2020 expectations: “We hope that we continue to grow and develop product, which we are working on now.”
Unemployment rate: 2.6% (↓ 0.9 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $48,011
2019 announcement totals: 2
2019 in review: “Darlington County had two announcements in 2019 with a total investment of $216 million. Combined with the $340 million invested in 2018, Darlington County announced
more investment in the last two years than in the previous ten years combined,” Darlington County Economic Development Executive Director Frank Willis said. “These expansions show the commitment of local industry to the county and Darlington County’s commitment to providing a good business climate for companies to invest over time.”
2020 expectations: “Darlington County expects several more expansions of existing industry during 2020, including the completion of some projects that have been on-going for quite some time.”
Unemployment rate: 3.1% (↓ 1.2 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $33,011
2019 announcement totals: 2
2019 in review: “Dillon County had a great year for 2019. We had approximately $45 million in new investment and 150 new jobs announced,” Dillon County Economic Development Executive Director Clay Young said. “We also are conducting two studies through grants from EDA to develop a Master Plan for the Inland Port Dillon and, a county wide water and wastewater needs assessment. In 2019 our unemployment rate decreased, and our investment county-wide increased. We should see both of these continue in 2020.”
2020 expectations: “With the announcement in January, of Huber Engineered Wood, LLC, investment of $30 million and the creation of 30 new jobs, 2020 is already turning out to be one our best years on record. We are working with Equus (Capital Partners, Ltd.) and the Marlboro Development Team to build two spec buildings near Inland Port Dillon. The two spec buildings are 373,100 sq. foot (Equus) and 250,000 sq. foot (Marlboro Development Team). The county is also working with the South Carolina Department of Transportation to four-lane Highway 34 from Long Street to Harllees Bridge Road at Exit 190 on I-95.”
Unemployment Rate: 2.2% (↓ 1.0 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $39,475
2019 Announcement Totals: 3
2019 In Review: “2019 was a year of continued growth for Florence County for both new industry and existing industry,” Florence County Economic Development Executive Director Joe King said. “Take McCall Farms, for example – the family-owned canning operation announced a $50 million investment that will create 140 new jobs in October 2019. Existing industry is the lifeblood of any community, and when we have existing industry expansions, that’s a sign of a healthy business climate.”
2020 Expectations: “We anticipate 2020 to mirror 2019, and expect Florence County to have both new industry announcements and existing industry expansions throughout the year. Florence County is taking an active role in enhancing the product within the county. To continue to promote growth and attract industry to the county, we must have sites and speculative buildings to compete for capital investment and jobs. Continuing to increase the shovel-ready product within the county is at the forefront of our initiatives for the coming year.”
Unemployment rate: 2.7% (↓ 1.2 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $41,294
2019 announcement totals: 0
2019 in review: “2019 was the most active year in the last decade for Georgetown County,” Georgetown County Economic Development Executive Director Brian Tucker said. “Our pipeline has never been better, and I expect 2020 to be a great year.”
2020 expectations: “Over the last five years we have focused extensively on product development and building awareness of Georgetown County around the state and beyond. We had our first announcement of the year with GreenCore Materials in late January and expect several others. These projects take a long time to develop and we hope to see the fruits of our labor in 2020.”
Unemployment rate: 2.5% (↓ 1.3 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $34,204
2019 announcement totals: 4
2019 in review: “I feel like 2019 was a year that made many of the past years worthwhile,” Horry County Economic Development Executive Director Sandy Davis said. “Relationships that we have built at tradeshows and marketing missions finally seem to be coming to fruition. The MBREDC is celebrating the success of 2019 and hope to continue the growth.”
2020 expectations: “2020 is off to a great start. Some of the projects that began in 2019 will be announced. Due to it being an election year, I think the influx of new projects will be less than what we saw last year.”
Unemployment rate: 3.1% (↓ 1.8 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $31,580
2019 announcement totals: 5
2019 in review: “The NESA region enjoyed tremendous success in 2019 and Marion County had a banner year with 5 announcements,” Marion County Economic Development Executive Director Dr. Julie Norman said. “I think the region is getting attention because of our transportation infrastructure (highways, Inland Port Dillon), proximity to major markets, and available sites and buildings, but it is the way the counties and NESA work as a team that brings a project to fruition.”
2020 expectations: “I hope the momentum continues and the NESA region is recognized as an ideal place to do business. Marion County intends to fill our newly constructed speculative building and start construction on another in 2020.”
Unemployment rate: 3.4% (↓ 0.9 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $42,121
2019 announcement totals: 3
2019 in review: “For Marlboro County, 2019 was a great year with the addition of 100+ jobs resulting from the Arris Manufacturing project,” Marlboro County Administrator Ron Munnerlyn said.
2020 expectations: “We expect 2020 to show continued job growth with Arris as well as significant progress with the large Delta project. The Delta project is the redevelopment of a 300 acre industrial “city”, formerly the site of a large textile facility. Marlboro County will take the lead on a number of initiatives resulting from our recent strategic planning update. These include infrastructure such as roads and broadband internet access to health care and tourism.”
Unemployment rate: 3.4% (↓ 1.2 points YOY)
Average annual wages: $37,699
2019 announcement totals: 0
2019 in review: “2019 was an interesting year,” Williamsburg County Economic Development Executive Director Gilleon Frieson said. “We experienced record unemployment, and witnessed various economic challenges brought on by tariffs and trade policy.”
2020 expectations: “My expectations for 2020 are to have multiple announcements in NESA’s and Department of Commerce’s newsletter throughout the year regarding completed projects in Williamsburg County; enhance the workforce development initiatives through partnerships with Williamsburg County School District, Williamsburg Technical College, and the local Workforce Development Board; and inspire small businesses to achieve their full potential.”