Columbia's growth lags behind nation

COLUMBIA -- Average income per person rose 2 percent in the Columbia area last year after inflation, but the growth wasn't fast enough to keep up with the rest of the nation, according to a federal report released Tuesday.

In the six-county Columbia region -- Richland, Lexington, Calhoun, Fairfield, Kershaw and Saluda counties -- personal income averaged $32,308 in 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported.

As per capita income among all 363 U.S. metro areas rose 2.6 percent, Columbia's slower growth caused its income ranking to slip to 167th in 2006, down from 164th in 2005.

The state's per capita income is about 16 percent less than the U.S. average of $36,307, while the Columbia area's is 11 percent less than the national average.

"A growth rate that beats inflation is good, but we're not growing at the rate we need to catch up," said Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

"We have a larger gap to close," McLeese said.

McLeese said Columbia metro area's income and growth in income has been weakened by the expansion of the metro area's definition about 2004 to include the more rural and less wealthy economies of Calhoun, Fairfield, Kershaw and Saluda. The Columbia metro area ranked higher in previous years when it had been defined as Richland and Lexington counties.

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said the area needs to continue its pursuit of jobs that require higher levels of skills, a strategy pursued with the University of South Carolina's research campus downtown. The strategy couples the university's strengths in research in fields such as hydrogen-powered fuel cells and urban development that makes the city an attractive place for researchers to live and work.

"We want to go to the top of the class and be among the elite communities in raising personal income," Coble said. "That will take a change in our economy to an innovation-based economy."

Beating inflation but accelerating slower than the rest of the nation was a pattern followed by Charleston, Greenville and four other smaller S.C. metros included in the report.

Sumter County was the sole exception. The single-county metro area's income grew 2.8 percent to reach $26,445, the lowest income among the state's seven metro areas and 333rd in the nation.

Doug Woodward, a research economist at the University of South Carolina, said Sumter probably hasn't outperformed other counties in economic development as much as its low overall income allows it more room for growth.

"High per capita income counties tend to grow more slowly," he said.

In addition to wages, personal income includes gains from selling stock or property, government aid and retirement pay and benefits.

South Carolina also has one of the nation's fastest-growing populations, which also dampens growth because the income is weighted by population.