Tourism is an underappreciated way of bringing jobs to the Columbia area, demographers Patrick and Leyla Mason say.
The area's scenery, mild weather, diverse recreation opportunities and multitude of performing arts are the main reasons newcomers discover the community and decide to make it home, surveys taken by the pair say.
"Tourism is a big growth engine," Patrick Mason said. "It spins off so many other things."
Some visitors come back and stay, he said, "with some opening businesses that create jobs."
The Masons have probed Midlands population shifts for more than 20 years, surveying up to 4,000 newcomers annually.
Some of those changes are seen in stories in the Carolina Living magazine they publish. Other trends are outlined in studies done for schools and businesses.
They talk both to people looking for a place to retire and those ready to move and still in the job market.
The presence of the University of South Carolina and Midlands Tech, Fort Jackson and its role as the state's capital give Columbia "built-in advantages" as a place to work, Patrick Mason said.
Job growth is coming in health care, information technology and professional services, both agree.
But that is happening mostly on its own, they add.
"I don't see any strategic plan" among civic and political leaders to guide the area's economic future despite recommendations from studies, Patrick Mason said.
The Masons champion incentives for companies that employ staffs of up to 100, saying those operations are the wave of the future rather than major manufacturers.
It's vital that benefits offered to small businesses include high-speed Internet service, Leyla Mason said.
Also, more attention should be paid to enhancing riverfront recreation, which would make the area more attractive to business executives concerned about lifestyle options for workers, the Masons say.
And the couple likes ideas such as USC's Innovista research campus for science and technology, saying its slow start is part of normal trial-and error in development.
Complaints about it are "typical political banter," Patrick Mason said.
Columbia has image problems partly beyond its control, the pair say.
Controversies such as the prominent display of the Confederate flag on State House grounds leave the area "in a delicate position," Patrick Mason said.
Plus, they think area political leaders need to look strongly at consolidation of services and more cooperation.
"Let's have the system run like a productive corporation," Leyla Mason said.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.