Charleston's Digital Corridor Could Offer Lessons for Wilmington

Apr 6, 2014

The expansion of the Digital Corridor is one of Charleston, South Carolina’s chief growth strategies.

It's an economic development initiative that puts the focus on knowledge-based companies.  And since the Digital Corridor launched in 2001, its scope has progressed beyond just the Information Technology sector to include architecture, law, and medicine.  But the effect is the same:  clean industry and high-wage job growth. 

Before Executive Director Ernest Andrade takes the podium Tuesday as keynote speaker at UNCW’s Information Technology Conference – or WITX, he shares some of the lessons Wilmington can learn.


RLH:  How do you attract these companies to the Charleston area?  Do you use traditional incentives?

EA:  I think in that regard we stand every economic development model on its head.  As an economic development initiative, the Digital Corridor has no marketing budget – number one.  Number two:  we have never looked outside the community to attract a company.  For the most part, our growth has been organic and primarily focused on companies that are operating within our region. 

And there’s a very interesting reason for that.  We know statistically that 80% of job creation in a community occurs within the community.  So why is it that I would dedicate resources to focusing on economic development projects outside the community? 

So if we can improve the economic environment or the business environment for the companies that are already here, that becomes very attractive to the companies that are looking to expand from outside the region. 

RLH:  How do you improve the economic – or the business climate?

EA:  This is an interesting dynamic, Rachel.  You do it by engaging with the very community that you want to attract.  That is the underpinning of the Digital Corridor.  It’s not to go focus on attracting companies from outside the region.  It’s to focus on the business environment within the region and ask the companies what can we do to make it better for them – and then to specifically go about to address these issues. 

RLH:  And what kinds of answers do you get?  Is it things like “infrastructure”?  Or do you get answers like, “We’d love to have $500,000 to help with our expansion of … this.”

EA:  Seldom does that come up.  Seldom is money the answer.  In a business – in a technology environment, the driving force is the ability to secure talent. 

RLH:  On your website, you say, “Talent is the currency of the 21st century.”  That’s such an interesting notion.

EA:  It absolutely is.  If a company came in here, and they said, “Ernest, we’d like to earn $1000.”  And if another company came in and said, “We would like for your help securing five top employees to help grow our company,” my leanings would be to focus on helping the second company – the latter rather than the former – the reason being that I can give you money, but if you don’t have talent to execute your game plan, you will not be successful. 

RLH:  In the beginning, you went to these 18 companies that already were located in Charleston, and you said, “What can we do to facilitate your growth?”  What kinds of answers did you get?

EA:  “Help us with sourcing more talent.”

“By the way, the business license fee is a little high.  And, you know, we need to grow.  When you’re a company with $100,000 in revenue, that’s one thing.  But when you get to $50 million in revenue, why would the fees be so high when the demands we’re putting on the community are extremely low?  This is a clean industry.”

“Ernest, we’re going to go build a new building.  Can you streamline the permitting for us?  You know, we’re moving very fast and we don’t have time to focus on the bureaucracy associated with building a building in a public environment, so can you help with that?”

So, essentially, we took on the role of being Project Manager for some of these private projects – something that had never been done.

Talk to me.  I’ll go handle the bureaucracy.  You don’t need to go do it yourself. 

Things like, “Would you introduce us to people who could be helpful growing our business?” 

RLH:  Thank you again, Ernest, so much, for taking the time today and we look forward to seeing you in Wilmington. 

EA:  Well, I look forward to coming to Wilmington and speaking and, hopefully, being an inspiration for those who want to do the same thing we’ve done in Charleston.


Newscast version:

Charleston, South Carolina’s Digital Corridor, an economic growth initiative, kicked off in 2001.  Thirteen years and dozens of companies later, the Corridor’s Executive Director Ernest Andrade compares his role to that of a concierge.  

WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn had the chance to talk with Andrade about lessons from Charleston before he steps up as keynote speaker at UNCW’s Information Technology Conference Tuesday. 

Lesson one:   explore the growth potential at home. 

That’s because 80% of job creation comes from within a community.   Enhancing the business environment for existing companies, says Ernest Andrade, naturally attracts other companies from outside the region.  

Charleston’s Digital Corridor focuses on knowledge-based businesses – since they tend to be high-wage, clean industry companies.  He admits that this approach turns just about every economic development model on its head. 

"The issue today with the Digital Corridor is that if you, as a tech company, came to this community and you wanted to expand, you have all the resources you need to be successful.  And every single one of the resources that are provided and have been provided have been built around the needs of the existing business community.  What Wilmington needs to do is to put down the studies and decide that they want to build an IT cluster."

There are two ways to do that, according to Andrade.  Traditional incentives are one.   And then there’s the Digital Corridor’s approach.

"The Digital Corridor’s way is helping them with issues that can become expensive if they’re not attended to properly – number one.  And number two:  cost avoidance."

That can mean helping companies through the permitting process during expansion, facilitating parking downtown, and working with policymakers on business license fees.


UNCW's WITX Exchange and Conference:

Wilmington Information Technology Exchange and Conference

WITX 2014:April 8th from 2 to 7 p.m.
Computer Information Systems Building, UNCW Campus

Join over 350 other Wilmington area professionals for an informal technology exchange and fair. In addition to the student, faculty and local industry technology exhibits, the conference will feature four different educational sessions.

Tentative Schedule: Registration Requested (click to register)

  • 2:00 p.m. Keynote -
    What Wilmington can learn from the successes of Charleston SC
    • Ernest Andrade, founder and director of the Charleston Digital Corridor
  • 3:00 p.m. - Learning Sessions
    • Analytics: Transforming Data to Information to Insight
    • Impact of BYO Cloud (Bring Your Own Cloud) on Organizations
    • IaaS – build or buy?  The evolution of IT to the Hybrid Data Center
    • How to Use Bootstrap to Create Modern, Professional Websites WITHOUT a Web Designer
  • 4:00 p.m. - Learning Sessions
    • Big Data Panel: What should you know?
    • How to "Make it Rain" on a Startup Budget
    • Navigating the Business of Social Media
    • Bootstrap (Part B)
  • 4:30 p.m. - Exhibits Open
  • 5;15 p.m. - Welcome from Dean Larry Clark
  • 5:30 p.m. - Ignite WITX

For more information, click the link above, or cut and paste this url: