The Impact of Rapid Growth on the Charleston Region

Aerial view of the construction for the Carnes Crossroads community

Because he had G.I. Bill money expiring, Dan Ecklund was taking two classes each semester to earn his master’s degree in Project Management through The Citadel while working full-time for Scientific Research Corp. at SPAWAR. He didn’t have much free time to spend with his wife at home in Goose Creek.

Fortunately, the program is offered at the Lowcountry Graduate Center, not far from work and more than halfway to his home, compared to the Charleston peninsula. It gives him time to grab something to eat before heading to class. Even so, recent development has turned the I-26/I-526 interchange that he has to navigate into a traffic quagmire.

Growth. It’s good for economies, which means jobs, opportunities for success, cultural and recreational activities, and so on. It has its downsides, particularly when not well-planned, which is pretty much the modus operandi in the United States. It destroys natural habitats, ruins the rural character of centuries-old communities, catapults housing prices beyond the reach of households with modest incomes and causes massive transportation woes, particularly considering America’s allergy to public transportation.

The Lowcountry is experiencing this dichotomy in a big way as new residents flood the area and move the center of gravity from downtown Charleston inland up I-26. With 35 people moving to the region each day, plus a daily net increase in population (births minus deaths) adding another 13 people, populations of once sleepy towns are swelling. This trend is accelerated by the influx of large employers, like Boeing, Volvo, Mercedes and the suppliers who want to cluster around them.

The numbers are stark. From 2010 to 2016, Dorchester County’s population ballooned by two-thirds. More than 50,000 people moved to Berkeley County during that period — and that was just a preview. Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute projects Berkeley County needs to spend $1 billion to build 20 new schools to accommodate 72,000 new students over the next 20 years. The entire county budget is $62 million.

Mega-communities are popping up like kudzu. The Nexton, Carnes Crossroads, Cane Bay, and Cainhoy developments each plan 15,000-30,000 new homes in Berkeley County, already the 35th fastest growing county in the nation prior to these developments. New industry locating in the county and existing companies expanding added $785 million of investment and 3,200 new jobs in 2015 alone. That didn’t include Volvo, which is expected to employ 2,000 people at its Ridgeville plant, now under construction, with an expected 8,000 spinoff jobs.

The Charleston metro, the 85th largest in the U.S. in 2000 with 549,000 residents, is projected to pass a million residents by 2030. That would place us 53rd today, ahead of Honolulu and Tulsa.

About 10 years ago, enough building permits had been issued for Dorchester Road to double the population living along it, even though it was already a parking lot during rush hour. Since then, not a single dedicated bus lane, jitney, rail line or other travel option has been added to the area’s infrastructure.

You’ve seen the result. Traffic along several corridors comes to a standstill during Lowcountry rush hour. Driving from downtown Charleston to Summerville at 5:00 p.m. takes an hour – not withstanding an accident. Then it can take an evening.

For many local residents to qualify for all the new jobs requires updating and enhancing their skills. Fortunately, the Lowcountry Graduate Center is conveniently located halfway between Charleston and Summerville or Moncks Corner. That cuts the commute in half for anyone traveling in the evening along these busy roads. Says Ecklund, “A longer commute would take away from any free time I might have.”

An LGC survey in early 2016 of people considering part-time graduate school while working full-time found that 6 of 7 preferred not to travel downtown for class. A survey of teachers across a five-county area yielded similar results.

These kinds of educational programs serve a purpose beyond the individuals served. Every new job filled by an existing resident increases the wealth of the community while reducing the net inflow of residents from elsewhere, along with many of the attendant negative impacts.