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SC vs. GA vs. KY vs. TN not all about SEC football

Posted: July 8, 2014 8:38 a.m.
Updated: July 9, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution, also known as the AJC, has always had a very special role in the South and for me personally. And, on a recent trip to Atlanta, several AJC stories, all published on the same day, provided a wakeup call about the challenges we in South Carolina face relative to other states in the South.

Originally two separate papers formed after the Civil War, The Constitution was the morning paper with a liberal bent and The Journal was its afternoon conservative rival. These papers represented the competing voices of the South and they produced many of the great writers, journalists and thinkers that have defined our region -- Henry Grady, father of The New South; Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus columns; Margret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind; sports writers Grantland Rice and Furman Bisher. The editors, Ralph McGill and Reg Murphy, were leading voices for moderation during the civil rights struggle and their columns and opinions reverberated across the whole region -- widely cussed and discussed but never ignored.

The AJC was so dominant across the South that their long-time motto seemed to encapsulate its influence -- “Covers Dixie Like the Dew.”

My mother’s family lived in Decatur, just outside of Atlanta and we often went there for holiday and family occasions. For me, as a young boy living in the small-town South, on every trip I’d eagerly read the AJC, as if it were the enlightened oracle of the capital city of my beloved South.

Other than providing a little regional and personal history lesson, why should we pay attention to the AJC today? Because, despite the rise of Internet bloggers, online pundits and the consolidation of national media chains that offer up the daily homogenous news accounts, today the AJC is the only paper that still tries to cover the South as a region and at least attempts to put it all in regional perspective.

Thus, on July 2, on a single day last week, three very different stores in the AJC highlighted some of the triumphs and challenges that we in South Carolina face as we try to be competitive among our neighboring states in the region.

Story one -- Georgia and corporate headquarters. Buried at the bottom of page A11, there was a report that Veritiv Corp, a packaging company, was being created by the merger of two existing companies and would be moving its headquarters to Norcross, just outside of Atlanta. Veritiv will have $10 billion in revenues and 9,500 employees. Buried even deeper in the story was the mention that this would be the 18th Fortune 500 Company headquartered in the state, and that another Michigan company, PulteGroup was also on the way to boost the number to 19.

South Carolina has no Fortune 500 company headquarters -- zero. (Technically, Domtar Corp is listed as a S.C. company, but they only have one facility here and they list the head office as Montreal.) As for the rest of the South, our other neighbor, North Carolina, has 13, Virginia, 23; Florida, 15; Tennessee, nine; Arkansas, six; and Kentucky, five. It’s small comfort that, economically, we are in the same category as Alabama with one and Mississippi with zero. The other state of the old Confederacy is the economic behemoth of Texas with 50.

Story two -- Kentucky and same sex marriage. Few issues have flipped quicker from an issue of social division to mainstream acceptance than same sex marriage. Just as in the 1960s, when many corporations would not locate in the South because of our racial policies, today this is beginning to happen around issues of sexual equality. The AJC reported that since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of June 2013, every federal court to consider same sex marriage has found bans to be unconstitutional. This week, Kentucky became the 18th state to overturn the ban.

South Carolina has been among the slowest of states to move on this; by many standards we are moving in the wrong direction. The question is when will S.C. act -- will we become one of the last states to accept this major social change? When will our intransigence start to cost us, the way our intransigence on civil rights has for more than a generation now?

Story three -- Tech in Tennessee. One doesn’t normally think of Tennessee, or South Carolina for that matter, as a high-tech state, but they have set a bold and audacious goal that will propel them in that direction. Gov. Bill Haslam has set the goal of making his state “the number one state in the Southeast to launch and grow a business.” And he’s putting his money and credibility where his mouth is. It has just launched a $50 million INCITE (Innovation, Commercialization, Investment, Technology and Entrepreneurship) initiative. Its recent innovative Southland SE conference attracted startups from 10 states and, as one journalist who covered the conference said, Tennessee is leading the South in “ambition.”

So what does all this mean for South Carolina? The short answer is that even if we in South Carolina are on the right track -- and we are -- we will still get run over by the train if we don’t move fast enough.

We as a state are making progress in many areas -- new business recruitment, changing social attitudes and lifting our vision from making excuses for “poor ole South Carolina” -- but it’s not enough. We need to move faster, more boldly, and with a lot more urgency and ambition.

One day’s read of the AJC tells the story. The South is rising again, and the rest of it is rising faster than South Carolina.

We can do better -- and we must.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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