The Tech Boom in Charleston Requires Educational Response

Tech user on their phone while browsing the internet.

At the turn of the 21st century, just 17 tech firms dotted the Charleston business community. Few businesspeople could name any besides Blackbaud.

Ernest Andrade and the fledgling Charleston Digital Corridor, a quasi-public initiative to attract and promote the local tech economy, could have fit them all inside a single tech center, had there been one.

Flagship3 Has Broken Ground
Two tech centers and hundreds of tech startups later, the Charleston Digital Corridor has broken ground on a new Flagship3 business incubator; a 92,000-square-foot, cutting-edge development on the upper peninsula. A noman’s land just a decade ago, the area is a beehive of business activity today, supported by a federally-designated Opportunity Zone championed by Senator Tim Scott.

Along with an 816-space parking garage, the $54 million development at 997 Morrison Drive will offer flexible office space to embryonic tech employers. With flexible lease terms and office suites as small as 50 square feet, and with amenities such as gigabit data, bike storage and the proximity of microbreweries, Flagship3 appears aimed squarely at Millennials emboldened with ideas and enervated by entrepreneurial reflexes.

Sen. Scott envisions the tech center spearheading a boom in the area sometimes derided as The Neck. “I’m looking forward to the new jobs, small businesses, and potential that this partnership will bring to the Holy City,” he said.

The Tech Business Incubator Evolution
The first CDC business incubators, Flagship, and Flagship2 provided similar office space for young tech companies, but on a much smaller scale. The original Flagship, located in a small shopping center on Calhoun and East Bay streets that recently succumbed to a bulldozer, featured a contemporary business environment of glass, shared space and high-speed data. Flagship2, two blocks away, had leased all its space within the first two months. By 2012, the demand for more was apparent.

The new space will accommodate companies as large as 80 employees, with abundant parking when completed late next year.

“This building, which has been a dream for years, is a robust piece of infrastructure for the digital age,” former mayor Joe Riley told the Post and Courier. 

The Need for Education to Develop Skills
The Charleston Digital Corridor and its business incubators have been both a key cause and effect of the growing knowledge community in Charleston. The tech boom in the region has produced a ripple effect in the education sector, as the industry requires more high-level skills from the local labor force.

The Lowcountry Graduate Center has been collaborating with area businesses and government for more than a decade to equip local residents with the skills they will need to fill the high-paying jobs produced by a thriving tech industry. Working with area universities, government, industry groups, and others, the LGC has offered degree and certificate programs in Computer and Information Science, Systems Engineering, Project Management, Engineering Management, LEAN Manufacturing, and more. Even the MSW program offered by the University of South Carolina is tuned in, as one of its three areas of focus available to its students is “Community, Social, and Economic Development.”

The alternatives to outfitting local residents with the skills demanded by incoming tech firms are two: either business will move to more talent-rich environments or all the new tech firms will recruit from outside the area without improving the employment picture for locals, but further crowding the Lowcountry’s infrastructure.

“The Lowcountry Graduate Center was created for the very purpose of furnishing local students with access to education that boosts career advancement and drives economic growth and quality of life for the greater good of the community,” said Dr. Nancy Muller, director of the Lowcountry Graduate Center and Associate Dean of the School of Professional Studies.

Flagship3 is not alone in cultivating tech startups in the Charleston area. The Harbor Entrepreneur Center is building a new incubator at 65 Gadsden Street downtown, in the old Advantage Media building and the Holy City Collective offers co-working and meeting space on Daniel Island.