The following is reposted from the Charleston Regional Business Journal (Sep. 21 – Oct. 4; Volume 21, No. 20):

Lowcountry Local First is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization working to build a strong economy by increasing community support for locally-owned, independent businesses. Our local economy development strategy focuses on locally-owned businesses because those businesses reinvest three times more money back into our economy than non-locally-owned businesses like chain stores and large, publicly-traded corporations headquartered elsewhere.

Our approach is simple; why not support 40 companies that can each hire four people, rather than one company that can hire 160 people, but that one larger company may fail or relocate if they get a better offer in another city? A diversified economy is more resilient. Our 600 business members (representing 16,000 employees and countless industries) have a significant impact to the health and sustainability of our economy, as well as create the type of city we want to live in and that attracts the ‘big fish’ companies and tourists alike.

We’ve recently been hearing from many of our business members on the skyrocketing cost of commercial real estate. Many of our ‘Main Street’ and creative economy businesses are struggling to find and keep affordable commercial space.

Towering construction cranes regularly dot the skyline in the Charleston metro area, as we undergo tremendous growth and change. Some industries are soaring, and others struggling to stay afloat. The growth and market competition are indicators of a thriving economy, but it’s not just market forces impacting how our communities are developed; municipal and state policies have greatly impacted how we grow and which industries are given a “level playing field” and opportunity to thrive.

Municipal land use policies contribute to concentrations of certain types of development, such as big-box sprawl and strip malls, which then replace the ‘Main Streets’ of many of our communities – all at the expense of neighborhood business districts. Zoning and land use policies are some of the most powerful tools communities have for shaping economic development and business in our cities, yet in metro Charleston, as in many regions across the country, there is a disconnect between economic development strategies and urban planning.

If you looked at most of our current municipal zoning code, you would think the communities we WANT are characterized by big-box chain stores, strip-mall business corridors, industrial office parks, massive parking lots, and six-lane highways. The math doesn’t support this type of development. Studies show the city of Asheville, NC gets an 800% greater return on downtown mixed-use per acre as compared to ‘greenfield’ development along urban boundaries like a Super Walmart.

Significant resources have been invested in both policy development and government-issued incentives to support targeted industries including aerospace, biomedical and high-tech. Yet, we haven’t progressed to creating development plans, policies and regulations that level the playing field for locally-owned businesses.

Our most sought-after, walkable, mixed-use business districts, like the downtown Charleston business district, are now unattainable for many locally-owned businesses, resulting in the ‘mallification’ of the King Street Business District. Have we become victims of our own success?

The policies we create and the way we spend money result in the communities in which we live, work and play.

It’s time to change course and reevaluate our economic development strategy, and to connect that strategy to our city planning plans and policies, in order to tackle commercial real estate affordability.

Our recommendations to create a built environment conducive to entrepreneurship through public-private partnerships:

  • Support smart growth policies that support local business – Call your councilperson, show up at community meetings, and vote to support candidates and policies that support small-scale commercial spaces, favor infill development over sprawl, and mixed-use, walkable development plans favoring pedestrians, biking and transit over automobiles.
  • Require a community impact standard and community benefit agreements for large-scale development projects – Make economic impact a standard component of the planning review process for commercial development, along with a requirement for a Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) with third party oversight and tracking.
  • Implement policies to preserve and create affordable commercial space – Regulatory tools like Formula Business Districts in over 20 cities and towns across the U.S. have implemented zoning districts that restrict formula (or chain) businesses or require special review.
  • Employ community-based ownership tactics – Ownership matters, and when we can lessen barriers or create opportunities for more local business owners to own their buildings, decision-making and capital shifts from faraway developers or investors to people rooted here in the community.
  • Fast-track local business permitting – Creating a Fast-Track permitting process reserved solely for locally-headquartered businesses in order to ease and expedite the permitting process, and level the playing field.

We’re not the only city battling land use and affordability issues that impact locally-owned businesses. Examples of initiatives around the U.S. that address the issues listed above include:

Lowcountry Local First looks forward to sharing how these communities and others are making positive changes — and what creative elements Charleston may be able to explore and implement.


Lauren Gellatly

Community Development Director

1630-2 Meeting Street

Charleston, SC 29405


Lauren Gellatly
Community Development Director at Lowcountry Local First