Few politicians can boast as many re-elections as Keith Summey, mayor of North Charleston, who is currently serving his seventh term in the city hall. Even fewer would call themselves “a local salesman”, rather than a leader, as Mr Summey does during an interview with fDi.

From the very beginning of his tenure as the mayor of North Charleston, South Carolina’s third largest city, Mr Summey had to learn how to be both, a leader and a salesman. In 1994, the Charleston Naval Shipyard, the region’s major employer, was preparing to close, following the post-Cold War defence budget cuts, and as Mr Summey recalls the city was facing job losses counted in thousands.

Advertisement

Yet, it was not just the loss of jobs connected with the naval base that worried him. “My main concern was that with the closure of the shipyard, small businesses will start closing, anticipating the loss of customers,” he says. “We had to keep the positive outlook on local economy.” Back then he did it by reassuring whoever would listen that things would be fine. “My goal was to convince people that we will not miss a beat. It might have been a stretch, but it worked. Our retail sales actually grew in the first year after the closure.”

North Charleston managed to avoid an economic downturn, but it was not thanks to wishful thinking and playing it cool. Asked for the main factors that made the local economy strong again, Mr Summey points to investment from Chicago-based aerospace giant Boeing, which in October 2009 chose the city as the location for its final assembly of 787 Dreamliner planes. Since then, it is estimated that the company invested more than $2bn in land and employed more than 8000 local workers.

Onwards and upwards

But according to Mr Summey, the value of landing a business such as Boeing is not only in direct jobs, but also small and medium-sized companies that it supports. “Boeing has been a great asset, especially given the spin-off jobs they create,” he says.

After scoring an anchor investor such as Boeing and stabilising the local economy, Mr Summey has his eyes on other advanced manufacturing industries. “We would love to get a major boat manufacturer, given our location [close to the Atlantic coast], snd more of the automative industry,” says Mr Summey. “They will find a great quality life of here, cost-competitive operations and a good business environment,” he adds, in salesman mode. “Boeing, while announcing their investments, stated that what drove them to the area was how was you can be up and running here. We are happy to prove this to be true for other investors.”