Editor’s note: The Aiken Standard will follow up next week with reactions from members of the Aiken Chamber Board of Directors.
A recent report revealed harsh, need-to-know facts about the future of Aiken’s growth and economy: A negative growth rate for Aiken County is a real possibility.
USC Aiken business professors Clifton Jones and Sanela Porca presented their Regional Economic Benchmarking Report for Aiken County to the Aiken Chamber Board of Directors on Thursday.
The report was funded by the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Partnership, or EDP.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Jones and Porca concluded that the state of South Carolina is growing rapidly, and the City of North Augusta is growing at an even faster pace.
The bad news, they wrote, is that Aiken County’s growth rate has slowed while the City of Aiken’s growth rate is approaching zero and could potentially go into the red.
“Its annual population growth rates have also declined somewhat since 2010, but suffered a larger than expected drop to only 0.54 percent from 2012 to 2013, so that Aiken County is now growing more slowly than both the Nation and the State,” Jones and Porca wrote.
Numbers also show that Aiken is above the county, state and national average for residents 65 or older – 21.3 percent in 2012.
In addition to growth, the study also analyzed income and consumer spending, the real estate market and education and then compared that data to Columbia County, Georgia.
Income and spending
The median household income for Aiken County is $44,399 per year. The City of Aiken is significantly higher at $53,825, which is actually about $800 higher than the national average. Numbers show that 17 percent of households in the county have an annual income of over $100,000.
While Aiken County’s income is exceeding the state’s, weekly wages in Aiken County have been dropping since 2011. The drop has had a negative impact on purchasing power.
“The standard of living for workers in Aiken County has dropped by almost 6 percent since 2011, which does not bode well for local businesses,” they wrote.
Jones and Porca used data from the S.C. Department of Revenue to conclude that consumer spending in Aiken County experienced a growth rate average of 3.79 percent from 2001 to 2013, while Aiken saw a growth of 5.13 percent and North Augusta at 4.86 percent.
Unfortunately, from 2011 to 2013, consumer spending dropped in all three geographical areas; North Augusta’s was the greatest drop at .24 percent.
“Since almost half of all workers who reside in North Augusta work across the river in Georgia, many of them may be choosing to do more of their shopping in Georgia, as well,” they explained.
Comparisons with Columbia County
Aiken County has always viewed Columbia County as a competitor and yardstick to measure itself against. Statistics show that Columbia County is currently growing about six times as fast as Aiken County. From 2012 to 2013, Aiken County saw a growth rate of .54 percent while Columbia County saw an increase of 2.88 percent.
From an education standpoint, Columbia County also holds the upper hand.
“The level of educational attainment in Columbia County is generally higher than in Aiken County. More adults hold a high school diploma or higher, fewer adults stop their formal education at a high school diploma, and more earn a bachelor’s degree or higher,” Jones and Porca wrote.
Columbia County’s income is also higher with a $67,295 median household income compared to Aiken at $44,399.
Jones and Porca concluded that some economic areas are strong in Aiken and other areas are of concern, including population growth.
To remedy their concerns, the two suggested starting with improving educational opportunities and becoming less reliant on the Savannah River Site for job opportunities.
“While fighting to preserve current funding levels at the Site is a worthy cause, we believe that Aiken County and the cities of Aiken and North Augusta should also start now to prepare for a future in which the Site plays a significantly smaller role in the local economy,” they wrote.
EDP Director Will Williams said the information gives Aiken a better picture of what it needs to do moving forward.
“The EDP will continue to aggressively pursue high-wage, manufacturing jobs for Aiken County and work collaboratively with the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and other important area stakeholders to make this area attractive for higher income families with children to live,” Williams said.
Chamber President and CEO David Jameson added, “These were all positive attributes to economic growth, but masked an important missing component, that is, the attraction of high-income families with children who chose to live elsewhere, but work in Aiken County. The report is clearly a call to action.”
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.