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The new downtown

Posted: September 7, 2017 2:55 p.m.
Updated: September 8, 2017 1:00 a.m.

There’s a revolution brewing and it’s not what you think.

As an overview, we hear much about economic development in this agriculturally-based state that’s fast becoming an international player in aerospace, automobile manufacturing and high-tech education. A new report by the Computing Technology Industry Association, an IT industry group, affirms that South Carolina’s technology sector is outpacing the rest of the country. More than 200 new tech firms opened last year in South Carolina, a 3.9 percent improvement, more than double the national average.

Anticipating growth in the Midlands, Kershaw County Council has allocated $17 million for upgrades in the County’s five industrial parks. In addition to essential water, electrical and sewer systems, and after completing two road studies that will result in improved roads, the county is constructing “spec” buildings at two of the sites. In response, industry is coming round to investigate. This past month, Invista announced another $35 million investment with 26 new jobs. Kershaw County has seen 550 added jobs in the past two years with a quarter billion dollars in investment. Clearly things are on the move.

There’s more. With the success of last’s years school referendum, we watch the expanding Central Carolina Technical College and the new ATEC (Applied Technology Education Campus), a signal departure from old-fashioned trade schools with its innovative training for the new century, with mechatronics as a case in point. Mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field that includes mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering, telecommunications engineering and systems engineering, all leading to high paying jobs, a distinct improvement from the shift work and assembly lines of the earlier mill culture.

In Camden, hotelier Vip Patel’s recent comments at the groundbreaking for the upcoming Hampton Inn, “We are seeing that Camden is really growing and becoming a dynamic location for leisure travelers, visitors and business travelers,” represents the exemplary leadership of a local merchant not only investing in our future, but telling us why.

But here’s the rub -- and the challenge: In response to Patel’s comments, an elected official was heard to remark, “That’s another death knell for downtown,” meaning that with every new business near Exit 98, the two blocks on Broad Street, famously “downtown,” will see less business, as if that means the end of Camden. Many older Camden natives miss the thriving Broad Street of 50 years ago and seem to feel that with every empty storefront something is dying on the vine. For many citizens, those two blocks, much improved from five years ago, still serve as the bellwether of current and future growth and expansion. 

The truth is, we in Camden enjoy many downtowns. The hotel and restaurant area by Exit 98 is growing apace; great new lighting highlights progress; the nearby county animal shelter is a showplace and worth a visit; the expanding technical college will be right next door. On the other side of town, the Walmart shopping zone, perhaps our most successful downtown, is thriving. DeKalb Sreet east and west represent other downtowns, as does Dusty Bend. Camden’s gasoline stations and general merchandize stores alone gross $82 million dollars a year.

With all that, a revolution is upon us: What’s changing the commercial landscape more than anything -- and not likely to reverse direction, is a major cultural shift in the entire county and the world: online shopping. The internet is the new downtown. What seemed like a fad 10 years ago, much like the beginnings of Facebook, is now an economic powerhouse and points to the future of retail commerce.

As TIME reported in July, by the '80s, the ubiquitous shopping malls, whole ecosystems of shopping and hanging out that marked postwar America, had long replaced Main Street; that is, until the digital revolution. Malls are now shutting down at a record pace; Sears and Kmart are closing more than 300 stores this year. In “the new downtown,” consider this: in 2016 annual global online sales surpassed $1 trillion for the first time. “Cyber Monday” brought in $3.45 billion in sales, a 12 percent jump from 2015. Amazon.com has recently bought out Whole Foods. Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company that has been expanding into the media and entertainment industry, along with medical, pharmaceutical and financial services, is now the world’s largest retailer, surpassing Walmart, with operations in 200 countries, with online sales and profits surpassing all U.S. retailers. As of August 2017, Alibaba has more than 529 million monthly active mobile users across its platforms.

The challenge for local merchants, even restaurateurs, should be clear enough. It’s a new world and a new adventure.

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