Growth Tracker: Attracting the younger generation to the Pee Dee

Growth Tracker

FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) — For many high school and college graduates, finding a job or going to college means moving to a big city.

But many local communities hope new types of jobs and remote opportunities will make more young people consider planting their roots in the Pee Dee.

Audrianna McFadden seems to have settled in Florence. She grew up in Turbeville, about 35 minutes away.

“Turbeville is a super small town,” McFadden said. “There’s one stop light. No Walmart for maybe 25, 30 minutes. And of course when you first get ready to go to college, you think I’m getting out of here I want to go as far away as I can.”

She ended up graduating in 2016 from Francis Marion University and has since found work in Florence at a local government agency.

“Compared to where I’m from, this is the big city,” she said.

Although Florence is the “big city” for McFadden, city leaders say some others her age look for work elsewhere.

“We need to capture and entice those who are our best and the brightest to come back and to be here,” city councilman George Jebaily said. “So many head off to other cities, to other universities, for job career opportunities.”

The U.S. Census Bureau says young people have historically been drawn away from smaller areas, and likely will continue to be for reasons like school, jobs and finding a partner.

“It’s not just losing the young people, they’re also losing the potential future families those young people would have had,” senior demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau Marc Perry said.

Florence County’s population has been fairly stagnant over the last decade.

“All jobs are important to this region,” FMU president Dr. Fred Carter said. “If you want to keep your brightest and best inside communities, then the quest is to find the jobs that not only give them an opportunity to earn a living. But the opportunity to challenge them intellectually and the opportunity advance up a career ladder.”

Dr. Carter believes there is a growing number of companies like that in the Pee Dee. Councilman Jebaily agrees, as the city partners with FMU to build entrepreneurship opportunities. The city is also working to get the word out about existing high paying, high-tech jobs in town.

Administrators at Coker University in Hartsville say around half of its graduates stay in the Pee Dee, a number it wants to get even higher with things like a new career center.

“We could have more housing for young professionals,” president of the university Dr. Natalie Harder said. “We could have more things like easily accessible green space, bike paths, things that I really think young graduates are looking for.”

Something else many young professionals want is the option to work remotely. That’s a growing trend, that some say could really benefit rural areas with access to broadband.

“Once they finish high school, once they finish college, they realize they can stay at home and they can work for any company around the country and around the world when they have that access to fiber,” government & policy strategist with Horry Telephone Cooperative Sarah Bonnoitt said.

Another potential economic game changer for some communities in the Pee Dee is Interstate 73.

“Our entrepreneurs, our businesses that have been here for the last 50 to 100 years, we now are able to see growth,” Mullins mayor Robert Woodbury said.

But keeping and attracting young people isn’t all about work. It’s about fun, too. That’s where Florence’s downtown revitalization comes in, as well as several other lifestyle projects the city is working on.

Audrianna McFadden is excited to be a part of something she feels is up and coming.

“Grow with the area,” she said. “That’s a different kind of experience and I want to be here maybe five years from now when some more buildings and more businesses invest in downtown Florence.”

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