How Southern Cities Are Joining the Knowledge Economy

Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik via AP

As manufacturing and agriculture declined in the South, once thriving operations have left many empty factories and and new opportunities in their wake. Now startups are taking them over and revitalizing small cities in the process.

At Bloomburg Businessweek, Craig Torres and Catarina Saraiva describe how Greenville, South Carolina has managed to attract highly skilled workers and revive its downtown by building its tech economy. Greenville has a network of investors, a culture of risk-taking, proximity to a research university, and has long made itself attractive to educated college graduates. They have to in order to compete with big tech employers in big cities on both coasts. The question other small Southern cities are asking is whether they can replicate Greenville’s success.

“We tell these communities, ‘Don’t worry: The entrepreneurs are going to put you back to work,’” says Edward Conard, who led Bain Capital’s industrial group and is now an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “But they aren’t coming.” Regional economies “are falling further off the technological frontier because companies like Google and Facebook are going to scarf that talent up.”

Greenville has managed to buck the trend. It had almost 5 young businesses per 1,000 people in 2014, the latest year for which data are available—close to the national total of 5.2, Boston’s 5.5, and Chicago’s 5.6. Danville’s total, meanwhile, was 3 per 1,000 people. (None of these cities has been immune to the overall decline in U.S. startups since the 2007-09 recession.)

While pundits focus on the importance of upgrading workforce skills, kick-starting a cycle of wealth-building by attracting and retaining new businesses is a multipronged effort.

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