When I visited Upstate South Carolina in early May 2021, graduation ceremonies were underway at Clemson University, Spartanburg Community College and other institutions. The Greenville Drive baseball team got to play its home opener vs. the Bowling Green Hot Rods at Fluor Field in Greenville — the first game at the stadium in 608 days. A banner off the left-field foul line proclaimed, “Live Fearless.” New residential development climbed toward the sky behind the stadium. The city’s Sound Check concert series had just kicked back into gear. The streets buzzed with spring, people and possibilities.
It’s a feeling the 10 counties of the Upstate have been experiencing for some time. U.S. Census Bureau figures on in-migration show the region welcomed 60,260 new residents from 2014 through 2018, arriving at the rate of 33 per day. Very few are leaving.
Residential permits have tripled since 2012 to nearly 10,000, with healthy recent increases in Spartanburg and Anderson taking some of the pressure off the white-hot Greenville market. But city economic development leaders also are making sure attainable housing is part of the picture, injecting $5 million into workforce housing and making robust use of public-private partnerships to support hotel, conference and park projects across the city.
Many of the Upstate newcomers have come from foreign countries, including nearly 3,500 from Asia, Europe and Central and South America landing in Greenville County alone. And they’ve arrived from all 49 other states (yes, even 56 from Hawaii).
Craig Brown is one of them. The owner and president of the Boston Red Sox South Atlantic League affiliate Greenville Drive minor league baseball team once found himself leading the search for a new city after a stadium deal fell through in the state capital of Columbia. “That is how the Capital City Bombers became the Greenville Drive,” he tells me. “Having spent 20-plus years in New York City where you might pass thousands of people every day without ever looking anyone in the eye, I was surprised to find such a sense of community in Greenville. From the very start Greenville city leaders were excited about partnering with us as our self-financed stadium would help anchor the West End which was still being revitalized, and business and community members were thrilled that baseball would be returning to Greenville.”
In 2010 the Greenville News referred to Fluor Field as the front porch of Greenville. “I came to understand that the front porch is where the family gathers — where it celebrates its victories and comes together in times of adversity,” Brown says. “That’s exactly what we hope our team and ballpark is for the Upstate, and we are very grateful for the continuing support of this wonderful community.”
It’s not a stretch to call the Upstate the front porch of South Carolina. The region in 2020 saw 57 announcements connected to more than $1.2 billion in capital investment and 3,017 jobs. Announcements have continued to flow this year: filtration company Pall Corp. in Duncan; Sweden’s Frauenthal Gnotec in Greenville County and China’s Gissing North America in Laurens County, but both in Fountain Inn; Standard Textile investing $15 million and creating 45 jobs in Union County; and Oshkosh Defense creating 1,000 jobs at a new postal vehicle plant it will locate in a repurposed warehouse in Spartanburg.
“It doesn’t look like we went through a pandemic,” says Aimee Redick, director of global engagement for the Upstate SC Alliance, citing data that show manufacturing up by 1.5% and construction up by 5%. The Upstate is an outlier in terms of the pandemic’s economic impact. But crisis response and bounce-back is now a more prominent site selection criterion. “Site selection experts are saying their customers want to go to a state that minimizes their risk of shutdown,” Redick says. “We think we weigh really well on that. Manufacturing and construction were considered essential businesses in South Carolina.”
The Upstate SC Alliance represents the 10-county region whose population now has surpassed 1.5 million, consistently growing at more than double the U.S. rate. The Alliance is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and so is the Greenville Area Development Corp, with new study results that estimate the total economic impact of the county on the region at $6.9 billion annually, supporting 82,693 jobs. That includes a new record set in 2020. Not a bad haul for what’s universally regarded as a bad year.
Indeed, I felt the year of panic and worry fading as I rode my bike on my last day in town along part of the 22-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail that takes you out of downtown Greenville all the way up to Travelers Rest. Refurbished mill buildings abounded, as did a healthy cross-section of the population, as we made our scenic way toward the campus of Furman University. It felt like everything would be much more than OK.