A decade ago, the area surrounding the Charleston International Airport was nothing more than trees. Acres of forest and fields sat quietly, poised to bring the area something big. It arrived in October 2009 when Boeing selected the North Charleston parcel for a new 787 Dreamliner final assembly and delivery plant.
About a year later, Boeing broke ground on a 1.2 million-square-foot facility, beginning production in July 2011. Since the first airplane rolled off the assembly line in April 2012, Charleston and the entire state have felt the impact of Boeing’s presence.
From charitable contributions to the creation of hundreds of jobs, there’s no denying Boeing’s role as an economic catalyst for the region. Since 2010, Boeing has invested more than $2 billion in land, facilities, infrastructure, and tools.
Boeing’s presence also has boosted Charleston’s aerospace cluster, once a small business segment dependent largely on Joint Base Charleston. Today, Charleston has become a hub of aerospace initiative and development. The Charleston Regional Development Alliance calls Charleston an “emerging international hub for aerospace and aviation,” noting that the area is one of the fastest-growing U.S. mid-size metros for aircraft manufacturing.
Boeing’s investment also has led the way for other aerospace businesses to open or expand in the region. According to the Center for Business Research at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Charleston region has 33 aerospace companies and suppliers with another eight in areas around the state.
Dan Mooney, vice president of the Engineering Center at Boeing South Carolina, said Boeing is intentionally trying to be a good neighborhood.
A self-described “Boeing lifer,” Mooney came to Boeing South Carolina three years ago, having spent his career with the company. He immediately felt the community’s embrace.
“It feels like a more integrated connection and there’s such strong community support,” he said. “It’s a different feeling here.”
Boeing’s initial investment in the Charleston area received significant fanfare as one of the state’s greatest economic development boons – comparable to BMW’s investment in the Upstate back in the early 1990s.
As with any major development, state and local governments offer incentives to big companies as they compete for their business. A 2010 report for The Alliance for South Carolina’s Future noted that Boeing received more than $470 million in state and local incentives, including state tax exemptions on equipment and construction materials and job tax credits.
According to the report, those incentives were only one of the driving forces behind Boeing’s decision to select Charleston for its 787 Dreamliner facility. The state’s low union presence, port and interstate access, workforce training, and a welcoming business climate all helped sway Boeing’s decision to land in North Charleston.
“Boeing South Carolina chose the Charleston region because of the competitive advantages this market offers: a strategic location, skilled workforce pool, efficient logistics, a business-friendly climate, and an outstanding quality of life,” said David Ginn, president & CEO of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
That strong community connection also prompted Boeing to expand its North Charleston footprint. In 2011, Boeing opened the first of three facilities at the 141-acre north campus, 10 miles from Boeing South Carolina’s main campus.
At the Interiors Responsibility Center South Carolina, employees manufacture 787 interior parts, including stow bins, closets, partitions, class dividers, floor-mounted stow bins used by flight attendants, overhead flight-crew rests, overhead flight attendant crew rests, video-control stations, and attendant modules for the 787s that are assembled in South Carolina.
Then, in 2014, the north campus expanded again with the opening of the Boeing Research & Technology Center, which focuses on advanced manufacturing technology and composite fuselage manufacturing. Also, the company has plans for Propulsion South Carolina, where the design and assembly of the 737 MAX engine housing component will be done.
This summer, Joan Robinson-Berry was named Boeing South Carolina’s new vice president and general manager, as the company streamlines day-to-day oversight of its operations while also ramping up production to 12 planes per month.
In 2015, the Center for Business Research at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce published a report on the “Economic Impact of The Charleston International Airport Complex,” which included the airport, Joint Base Charleston, and Boeing South Carolina.
It reported that Boeing facilities directly employ 8,200 workers in the Charleston region in aircraft and aircraft parts manufacturing. The company also sustains another 20,000 jobs in the region with its spin-off effect in every sector. The total estimated impact of Boeing’s local employment is more than $11 billion in economic activity in the Charleston region, according to the report.
Mooney said Boeing truly has been a catalyst for growth here in Charleston. One of the first large companies to come into the area after the financial crisis, Boeing has shown just what can be done in this market.
“It’s remarkable what we’ve accomplished and that’s attracted other companies,” he said. “We created a base of experience.”
As Boeing moved into the market, an early concern was whether the Lowcountry could support an aerospace manufacturer of this magnitude. And while Boeing brought in some of its own team members, it also created hundreds of new jobs for the Charleston community.
Locally, organizations stepped up to offer added training and workforce development programs, ensuring the Charleston area was ready to meet the demand.
“That is one place we’ve had great support – growing the workforce,” Mooney said.
He points to readySC, a state-funded program, offering customized workforce recruitment, assessment, and training. Plus, Trident Technical College is creating an on-campus aeronautical training center with programs in aircraft maintenance technology, avionics maintenance technology, and aircraft assembly technology. The college received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to support the center’s construction.
With a pool of workers from the Air Force as well as automobile manufacturing, Mooney said the area has a great base of people from which to pull workers. And, from an engineering standpoint, the company is diverse with about one-third of the employees coming from outside Boeing, he noted. The company recruits from colleges along the East Coast and across the country. The engineering center also attracted engineers from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
That blend of engineers and backgrounds results in good diversity of thought, Mooney said.
Boeing also provides higher wages and training. According to the company, the average total compensation for a Boeing employee in South Carolina is $82,000 – compared to $77,968 for an aerospace worker at other private companies in South Carolina. Since 2010, the company also has invested about $50 million in teammate training and development.
Boeing is keenly aware of its role in the community beyond the economic impact. The company plays a role supporting nonprofits and charitable cause, encouraging employee volunteerism and creating programs for students.
Thousands of middle school students from all over South Carolina have been part of Boeing’s DreamLearners program, taking tours of the facility as well. And the company’s speakers bureau sends Boeing employees into schools where they can talk about working in the engineering field.
That interaction can be the spark that gets kids interested in STEM careers, Mooney said.
Employees, too, are giving their time and talents to a host of local charitable organizations. Boeing as a whole has donated more than $28 million since 2010. Boeing has given grants and sponsorships to educational initiatives, health and human services, the environment, arts and culture and to civic organizations.
Its employee fund has contributed $700,000 to the community with the Boeing teammate match program generating more than $420,000 for the community. More than 8,000 Boeing employees have volunteered on more than 500 projects around the state.
Eyeing the future
On July 15, the Boeing Company celebrated its 100th anniversary – no small feat for any company. As company officials and team members from Seattle to Charleston marked the occasion, the Charleston region can also pause to reflect on the imprint Boeing has made locally and around the state in such a relatively short period of time, begging the question: What can Boeing do here in another hundred years?
“To have South Carolina be part of Boeing as we wrap up our first century (is significant),” Mooney said. “(The area) can really be part of the strategy of the company in the second century.”
In less than a decade, Boeing has greatly transformed Charleston’s economy and South Carolina’s reputation as a state with a thriving aerospace industry. Fields of trees in North Charleston have given way to something akin to a field of dreams, pumping up the economy and workforce and giving economic development officials a hopeful future.
“Thanks to Boeing, we are a global aerospace hub with a fast-growing aerospace cluster. Boeing’s impact will be felt directly and indirectly for generations to come,” said the CRDA’s Ginn. “And when you consider Charleston is the only metro in the world that manufactures both automobiles and wide-body airplanes, the sky’s the limit with what this community can accomplish together.”