Photos by Ruta Smith Charleston Digital Corridor director Ernest Andrade said its new building is just the start of the tech incubator’s work in 2021

‘Economic Basket’

The Charleston Digital Corridor has seen a lot of new growth since its start in 2001. As technology progresses rapidly and the Lowcountry’s population continues to explode, stars may be aligning for the tech sector to continue its upward growth in Charleston.

Even compared to Charleston’s larger hospitality and medical sectors, Corridor Director Ernest Andrade said the nonprofit holds its own and, in some ways, comes out on top.

“Charleston’s medical scene is thriving because the population is growing,” he explained. “But, that’s distributive. On the other hand, tech is more generative; it’s something that didn’t exist before, and you’ve created value from doing something incrementally better than anything else.”

Andrade said a distributive economy is one that builds naturally alongside the city, like health care and tourism, but a generative economy has to be designed intentionally and built up from nothing.

That key difference is what propelled Andrade through the formation of the organization’s ethos from day one. The Digital Corridor is a tech incubator, an organization that supports the development of new business ideas by providing mentorship, business services and funding connections to young tech companies.

“Before this, when we had our first child, I stopped long enough to ask myself, ‘What is she going to be doing in this town?’” Andrade said. “The answer I found was that we needed an economically diverse town … You can’t be a one-trick pony. The economic resilience of a community is tied directly to the diversity of its economic base.”

The pandemic provides a recent example of that principle. As the local hospitality industry was struggling and hotels were at 30% capacity, tech businesses in Charleston and abroad were still humming along.

“There already was a trend for a lot of employees with these companies working remote,” Andrade said. “There was already a trend where unicorn employees were being allowed to work wherever they want; there was already a trend where young families, their quality of life was starting to migrate.

“What the pandemic did was accelerate those trends, so we absolutely benefited from the pandemic. There has been an amazing silver lining.”

But, the Digital Corridor isn’t all about economic impact. Andrade said he wanted it to be a part of the community’s growth forward.
“The objectives were very simple: raise per-capita wages, have a place for our graduates to go and avoid people leaving, and to be the voice for this community,” he said. “And, it’s a small community, but it’s slowly but surely growing.”

Andrade said that when he pitched the idea to then-Mayor Joe Riley in 2000, the idea was to make the organization a part of what he called the “economic basket.”

“You’ve got the port, the distribution, tourism, medical, legal, retail — all these parts and pieces, and we were in a position to leverage the naturally built environment here and the sense of place.” That sense of place is one unique to the Lowcountry, Andrade said.

“You feel like you have a soul here,” he said. “There’s a certain vibrance of peninsula cities. The fact that if I really wanted to, I could get up and walk down to the battery right now — these things matter.”

Part of that community feel has been the new tech center at 997 Morrison Drive. While it’s still under construction, many companies and partners have already started the process of moving in, and making the co-working space their own.

Photo by Ruta Smith

The 92,000-square-foot, six-story building can accommodate more than 70 people per floor, but that number looks a bit lower now due to pandemic restrictions. Each floor is designed for different levels of corporations, and retail and restaurant space is planned for ground level. The second floor is dedicated to the Flagship, a 15,000 square-foot co-working space and the corridor’s permanent new headquarters.

“We were in a temp-space downtown, and we were cramped,” said Riley Chalmers, a recruiter with Insight Global. “It was a cool location, but there were eight of us in a small room just screaming. Now, the views are great, and on a sunny day, you can see the bridge.

“It was a really excellent move,” she said. “We are all really happy to be here. This space is awesome, and we are excited to just be in a dedicated tech space.”

Insight Global, a staffing company with 61 offices nationwide, is just one example of Charleston newcomers in the growing local tech industry.

“People are now understanding what the vision was all about 20-25 years ago,” Andrade said. “The city has benefited from this march forward to build a more diverse economy. So, one of our core tenets has really been addressed — creating a robust, diverse environment. And, we are just getting started.”

The building is still under construction but is operational for many companies who began utilizing the space Feb. 15. Future developments with the Digital Corridor building include retail and restaurant space on the ground floor, a way of getting local feet in the door, so they can see what the tech industry is doing in the community.

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