Charleston is a Growing Tech Destination

CHARLESTON, S.C. — It may be 2,740 miles away, as the crow flies, but Charleston seems like a million miles away from the hustle, bustle, and stress of Silicon Valley.

An idyllic beachfront on the Carolina coast, drawing 7 million tourists annually. Horse-drawn carriages and pastel antebellum houses with roots to the American Revolution. Fort Sumter in the distance, a reminder of where the first shots were fired in the Civil War.

And yet the economic formula is decidedly 21st Century after decades of relying extensively on the military, automotive and textile industries. The focus today is on high-wage jobs in an affordable, lifestyle-friendly setting.

Welcome to Silicon Harbor: Home to more than 250 tech companies employing 11,000. This port city has quietly become the No. 1 mid-sized U.S. metro area (500,000 to 1 million) for IT job growth, adding 4,000 jobs the past five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tech jobs comprise about 3% of jobs in the region, and account for 5% of the area's payroll of $14 billion last year.

"Any community serious about having a tech community better pursue creating qualified workers and recruiting them," says Ernest Andrade, head of Charleston's tech-expansion efforts.

Charleston's affordability, laid-back lifestyle and fledgling tech scene are its selling points at a time when so many cities are pursuing a slice of the booming tech market. About 4% of the U.S. workforce is employed in the $1.3 trillion industry, about 8% of the national economy. Last year, the industry expanded 2% to approximately 7.3 million workers as the digital economy continued to flourish in jobs for software, cybersecurity and cloud computing, according to Cyberstates 2017, an annual analysis of the nation's tech industry by technology association CompTIA.

"I wanted to start a family and ultimately chose Charleston" over Austin, Scottsdale, Ariz., and San Francisco, says Chris Guerra, 33, chief marketing officer at Blue Acorn, an e-commerce agency.

"In just one day, I fell" with the community and culture, says Guerra, who estimates that more than half his company's 75 employees are from outside the area. "And to think I was scared of leaving New York for Charleston."

In the wake of President Trump's election, tech hubs in the South and Midwest —Charleston, among them — might benefit from White House pressure to bring jobs to mid-sized cities.

Companies dot the 347-year-old city, remaking once-dilapidated neighborhoods in the north and rejuvenating pockets of abandoned buildings near downtown. Workforce-management platform provider PeopleMatter, acquired by Snagajob last year, renovated a crumbling 123-year-old structure — once a clothing store, then bakery — that ravaged by fire and disrepair into a state-of-the-art headquarters. The new building, opened in 2013, houses 120 employees.

BoomTown, a fast-growing, real-estate software firm, anchors a sprawling tech campus at the Pacific Box and Crate development in the city's upper peninsula.

The region is far from done. Flagship 3 project, another office building on the upper peninsula, is to house even more start-ups.

"Think of Charleston as the Austin of South Carolina," says Josh Martin, senior adviser to Mayor John Tecklenburg, referring to the liberal tech bastion in conservative Texas. "It's a blue island in a red sea."

Not that the island is trouble-free paradise.

Martin and others acknowledge that housing costs — houses downtown are $800,000 and rising — traffic and transportation remain challenges in a city that is a popular vacation destination. The region has undertaken a Bus Rapid Transit project to ease congestion after Charleston County voted approved a half-cent sales tax referendum last fall.

The education system and poverty remain problems, although charter schools and community-outreach programs are in operation, with more in the works.

And, despite its allure, Charleston is not among the 10-most desirable relocation destinations for job seekers. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta — all cities with thriving tech communities — rank in the top 10, according to research compiled by job search engine ZipRecruiter.

Nashville, Martin and others say, is Charleston's natural rival for tech talent.

"We're building a tech community, and Charleston is the selling point," says Stacy Shelley, vice president of marketing at cybersecurity firm PhishLabs, which employs 85. "The beach. Restaurants. This tech community."

Follow USA TODAY's San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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