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The Headline That Really Isn’t.
I walked in to a cocktail reception last Thursday and the room was abuzz about the headline news that Charleston is now South Carolina’s Largest City.
The room was divided between those ready to break out in chants of “we’re #1!” and those sure the latest news was proof that all things good about Charleston are bound for imminent destruction. From where I sit, both sides were a little overheated.
In case you missed the story, last week the Census Bureau issued 2016 population estimates for all incorporated places in the United States. By official count, the City of Charleston now has 134,385 residents, edging out Columbia by 76 people to become the largest municipality in South Carolina.
But let’s dig a little deeper. A population of 134,385 is good enough for 198th place nationwide, not exactly a position for either chest thumping or hand wringing.
The City of Charleston has less than half the population of Greensboro, N.C. The nation’s 12th most populous incorporated place is Jacksonville, Fla. which boasts a population of 880,619; 6.5 times larger than Charleston. Of course, Jacksonville long ago merged city and county into a single municipality. Therein lies the problem.
Municipal population matters to the good folks responsible for building a city budget. But it doesn’t relate much to the way we live and work. By measuring the City of Charleston in isolation, you miss much of what makes our region a vibrant, economically prosperous place: most of the port operations, all of Joint Base Charleston, our beaches, the airport, our largest manufacturers and the vast majority of our workforce.
For regional economies, comparing incorporated places is about as useful as comparing okra and oak trees – they’re both plants that thrive in the Lowcountry but the similarities diverge widely from there.
Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) offers a far more accurate reflection of reality. With an estimated 2016 population of 761,155, the Charleston-North Charleston MSA, which encompasses the Tri-county labor shed, is the 74th largest MSA in the country. That’s a couple thousand people larger than the Greensboro-Highpoint MSA, and within a few spots lower in the national MSA rankings than the Greenville-Anderson and Columbia MSAs.
As for fastest growing region in South Carolina, that distinction actually goes to the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach MSA which grew by an average of 3.8% per year from the 2010 census through the 2016 estimate. Our population grew by an average of 2.9% annually during the period.
My point is don’t get caught up in rankings. They don’t matter that much.
Instead, let’s start bragging about regional stats that do matter, like the fact that the South Carolina Ports support 187,600 jobs statewide. Or that our military presence generates $10.6 billion economic impact per year in our region. Or that thanks to the Chamber’s A2 investors, 25 students have scholarships to study high demand/high earning fields at Trident Tech this fall.
Something else worth celebrating, according to a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution, Charleston is one of only four large metro areas in the U.S. that achieved economic growth, increased prosperity (productivity, average wages and standard of living) and inclusion that benefited a majority of workers of all races and ethnicities.
Those are the kind of numbers we can all celebrate.