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Panel: Geography helps Columbia recruit auto, aerospace suppliers

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Staff Report
Published Feb. 23, 2016

Thanks to geography, Columbia appears to be in the sweet spot to snag automotive and aerospace suppliers migrating to South Carolina.

That’s the opinion of local economic development directors who see the Midlands benefitting from the rapid expansion of auto manufacturing in the Upstate and Lowcountry, as well as booming growth at Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner plant in Charleston County.

“We’re kind of in a good spot right between Greenville and Charleston markets,” said Jeff Ruble, Richland County economic developer director. “I think that if we don’t do anything in particular, we’re still going to benefit from them.”

Added Chuck Whipple, Lexington County director of economic development: “We think Columbia is at the epicenter of both of those activities. We’re in the middle of those bookends.”

Whipple and Ruble said at a recent “Power Breakfast” at the Columbia Marriott hosted by the Columbia Regional Business Report even more automotive suppliers could be drawn to the area as Mercedes-Benz Vans, a division of Daimler, expands its North Charleston plant to manufacture Sprinter vans and Volvo constructs its first North American factory in Berkeley County.

About four dozen suppliers are following BMW, which is in the midst of a $1 billion expansion program, Ruble said. While most suppliers will go to the Upstate to be near the BMW plant, some may shy away and locate in around the Columbia area. In addition, many of those suppliers also could provide pieces and parts for Mercedes-Benz Vans and Volvo, so a location somewhere in between those plants and BMW could be optimum.

As far as Boeing’s growth, the Midlands could attract the company’s legacy fleet that will be needed to be converted, Whipple said.

Columbia Metropolitan Airport offers the Midlands an opportunity to attract the Boeing business, Whipple said. He noted that the airport’s master plan includes extending the main runway to the west and across Platt Springs Road to property that could be used for passenger airliners.

“There’s an opportunity for us with aerospace,” Whipple said.

Another recruiting opportunity is in the area’s growing insurance IT and technology sector, panelists said.

One example is the IBM and Fluor Corp. agreement to establish a research facility at USC’s Innovista research campus in the heart of Columbia, which likely will bring hundreds of highly skilled information technology professional into the city. It also will change the city’s skyline, adding an 110,000-130,000 square foot, five-story academic office building to house the researchers who will populate the new Center for Applied Innovation.

USC and IBM estimated the center will create 100 new jobs. But if the computer giant’s history is any indication, that number could grow to hundreds as the center matures. IBM has partnerships with several universities to put its researchers and software developers in close touch with the research departments and student populations.

The Innovista development offers Columbia an opportunity to recruit more IT and white collar jobs in banking, health care, law and accounting, said Ryan Coleman, director of Columbia’s office of economic development.

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