Monday, April 30, 2012

COLUMN by Councilman Ron Brinson: Boeing brings out the best in South Carolina

North Charleston-made Boeing 787
Boeing-North Charleston's first 787 Dreamliner rollout Friday was quite a show.

But now it's over, and this project that shaped different grades of excitement in Greater Seattle and Greater Charleston is reality.

Boeing is producing planes in South Carolina!

And we South Carolinians love it!

This project is now beyond the economic-development achievement cycle and on to the most important objective — building great airplanes and making a profit for Boeing shareholders.

That's what it's all about, right?

One thing's for sure — Boeing brings out the best of South Carolina.

Consider that its massive brand new production campus at North Charleston evolved from a standing start in 2009 to completion six months early, with nary a construction accident.

This $775 million complex is a world-class, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, laced with large and small environmental features, like a roof covered with solar-energy panels. Hundreds of permits were required, scores of government and intergovernmental actions were necessary. The requisite interagency bureaucracy seemed to flow flawlessly.

For economic-development prizes like a Boeing assembly plant, we rise above our inertial temperament and make things happen. And Boeing-North Charleston is a very big prize. With the "Great Recession" peaking in 2009, Boeing gave South Carolina a 9,000-job boost into the aerospace industry — and its presence in our community.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said it best: "To have our nation's No. 1 exporter in our state ... this is the game changer of my lifetime!"

Folks in Boeing's Seattle-Everett enclave might forever doubt that South Carolina can build a plant or a plane. And folks in South Carolina will forever remember that Boeing workers' unions and President Obama sicced the National Labor Relations Board on South Carolina and our right-to-work laws.

And what about the gratuitous insults? Like the jokes and the David Horsey cartoon depicting South Carolinians as incapable of producing anything but a backward reputation. In this vacuous truth, South Carolinians can't build airplanes because nobody can, unless the assembly line is in Washington state!

We tend to laugh at such misinformed ignorance. Idiots are idiots, but thoughtful detractors might have checked the record.

We're proud to say our state's greatest market asset is a trainable, scalable workforce and a landscape of beauty and lifestyle that attracts the skilled and talented.

Sort of like Washington state, right?

And we're very proud to note our statewide technical-education system is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Its mission is simple — nimbly train workers for new and expanding companies. In 2012, as the United States steadily regains manufacturing jobs, that means training for high-tech production jobs. South Carolina committed a $45 million training package to Boeing. Some might argue that's an excessive public expenditure — and subsidy. Hugh Leatherman, state Senate finance committee chairman, sees it through a marketing prism: "Training is a key to economic development ... it's an investment in our people that pays the biggest of dividends."

South Carolina is a business-friendly state, for sure, and, yes, those right-to-work laws are attractive to some companies. But the biggest of all these business-friendly assets is a trainable workforce — and a statewide training program with a proven record.

South Carolina thrives in the fiercely competitive foreign-investments markets. Last year, BMW announced yet another expansion of its Greenville-Spartanburg plant. This one will push production to 200,000 vehicles annually. Last month, Michelin announced a $700 million expansion in our state. Over the past 40 years, international firms invested more than $38 billion in South Carolina and created more than 150,000 jobs.

It may take time for Everett and upstart North Charleston to become best friends forever, but North Charleston is now part of the Boeing family. Maybe the two municipalities can become brother or sister cities, or something.

As an aerospace-industry player, we South Carolinians know we have a lot to learn — and we're willing. One thing we clearly understand, though, is that Boeing, wherever it operates, is a big deal! Seeing a brand new Boeing plane flying gracefully over Greater Seattle or Greater Charleston should never become routine for any of us.

Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman, served as president/CEO of the American Association of Ports Authorities from 1979 to 1986 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans from 1986 to 2003.

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