How Greenville measures up

The area gets high marks for quality of life, but low per capita income has folks wondering what's going on

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Jesse Jackson's months-long campaign against the Greenville County Council led to much bad publicity for Greenville in the early 2000s.

The cold, hard facts are undeniable.

The average per capita income of Greenville residents is declining compared to the rest of the nation.

After reaching 2 percentage points over the national average in 1999, the average per capita income has been in a free fall that now puts the county at its lowest point since the Reagan administration.

No one knows for sure why. Closed textile mills and a resulting under-skilled work force seem certain. But some wonder whether leaders of high-paying companies outside the region have been spooked by the controversies of the 1990s and early 2000s.

First, was the well-publicized loss of runners carrying the Olympic torch through the county on the way to Atlanta after Greenville County Council passed a resolution against gays. Then came a prolonged debate over adopting the Martin Luther King holiday and residents rejected a school-construction plan.

But even as income has stalled, Greenville is being held up across the South as a place that is getting it right when it comes to creating a strong business climate and quality of life. Numerous other communities have sent delegations here to try and copy Greenville’s success.

Jerry Howard, president and chief executive officer of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said the two sides of the economic coin are hard to figure out.

“This is a journey, not a destination,” he said.

An economic scorecard released by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce along with Advantage Greenville, Clemson University, Greenville Forward and Advance SC this week showed the disparity.

Hank Hyatt, the Chamber vice president of economic development, said the scorecard was done to show how the community is performing when compared to like-sized areas as well as potential target areas.

The idea was to get people talking, because Greenville is not performing as well it could be, he said.

Valinda Rutledge, chief executive officer of Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, said this is the kind of data that can be brought to the community to show that work needs to be done.

After its public unveiling Monday, it will be taken to numerous groups in the region in the coming months, she said. Business leaders need to be take a more proactive role in changing Greenville.

“It allows us to look at ourselves honestly,” Rutledge said.

The numbers don’t paint a good picture of the Greenville metropolitan area, which also includes Laurens and Pickens counties.

The per capita income of Greenville residents has increased by 26.7 percent in the past 20 years to a shade more than $30,000 a year, but the national average grew 27.8 percent, according to the data.

Greenville’s numbers are still above the state average as well as neighboring counties such as Anderson and Spartanburg. However, the per capita income levels are below those of the Columbia and Charleston metro areas, which wasn’t the case a decade ago.

It would be easy to say that Greenville’s overall numbers are hurt by the presence of rural areas included in the data, but Hyatt said that same argument can be made for its peer cities.

Greenville is well below target cities such as Charlotte, Nashville, Raleigh and Austin. However, both Austin and Raleigh have been declining.

And while Austin and Raleigh can tie their losses to the dot.com bubble burst, Greenville’s decline is tougher to gauge.

Howard said a lot of it has to do with the declines in the textile industry and few new jobs to fill the gap.

He also believes the early 2000s battles over the King holiday hurt business recruitment, but he could not say how much. The companies that looked at Greenville and eventually moved here never mentioned it as a problem.

But he could not say how many times Greenville was not considered because of the negative publicity.

“I’m sure it had an impact,” he said.

The state as a whole suffers from the publicity over the protracted debate over taking the Confederate flag off the top of the State House dome. In 2000, lawmakers agreed to stop flying the flag, but put it in front of the building at the Confederate Monument.

Greenville Mayor Knox White said misjudging Greenville is a problem as a whole. During the recent Bassmaster Classic, numerous fans and exhibitors said they were surprised at how metropolitan Greenville was and how many people lived here.

The reason was U.S. Census numbers show the city of Greenville at 56,000 people, which often gets it knocked off the list of potential developers who look only at the size of a city even though the metro area has close to 400,000 and there are 1.2 million in the region.

Another problem facing Greenville is the level of education of the work force. The scorecard showed 80.57 percent of workers in the Greenville area have a high school diploma, and 24.66 percent have a college degree.

It was 79.38 percent and 21.13 when Spartanburg and Anderson counties were included.

All of those numbers were lower than the peer cities selected for Greenville and include Charleston, Columbia, Lexington and Louisville, Ky., Jackson, Miss., Little Rock, Ark., Jacksonville, Birmingham, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn.

Hyatt said if Greenville wants to increase its per capita income it must increase the number of high school graduates. Increasing the number of college graduates will stimulate job growth.

White said education may be a cultural problem because some don’t see the value of getting a diploma. It reflects on the community as a whole that voters refused to allow bonds to be issued in 2001 to build schools to replace the many aging facilities in the district.

In the years since, the school district was able to get the money without voter approval to replace or refurbish all of the rundown schools.

Many of the controversies started with Greenville County Council votes, and there were numerous charges of animosity between city and county leaders in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

One of the uglier battles was about putting a professional baseball stadium on the Reedy River that eventually led to a lawsuit that pitted the city and county against each other.

And during the 17-year struggle to get a King holiday passed by the county, the city of Greenville was mistakenly criticized because most people outside of the region didn’t know the differences between the two. National radio celebrity Tom Joyner blasted the city even though the city had approved the holiday.

White, though, said he didn’t think tensions between the city and county have hurt the economy or business recruitment.

County Council Chairman Butch Kirven believes similarly and said city and county leaders have set aside their differences and are working on numerous projects including a revamped transit system.

Irv Welling, chairman of Elliott Davis, said the peer cities and data sets weren’t chosen to make Greenville look bad, but to help keep steering the business community forward.

“This is a special place,” Welling said. “But we want to keep improving.”

And the scorecard isn’t all bad news for Greenville.

The region does better when looking at things such as innovative activity and capacity, which measures graduate students, patents created and engineering jobs.

Greenville is second to Lexington in the smaller peer group and third in the larger group behind Knoxville and Richmond. And it does better than its target cities of Nashville and Austin.

Hyatt said that shows the potential exists, but Greenville is still below the national average in those fields. In addition, Greenville ranked No. 1 when it came to fostering an entrepreneurial environment in the small-peer group and third in the large group.

Hyatt said he plans to update the data every year to help gauge where Greenville is going.

David Barkley, one of the Clemson professors who administered the report, said it is important to remember that all of the other regions are trying to increase their per capita incomes, educated labor force and entrepreneurial efforts.

“We are not alone in this,” he said.

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