COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina will try to grab a bigger slice of global automotive manufacturing when a state delegation goes to Germany next week for the world’s largest auto show.
“Our job is to try to make sure that we’re in play … for everything in the automotive industry,” S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said in a conference call with reporters Friday.
Gov. Nikki Haley, Hitt and four Commerce staffers will fly out Monday to attend the 65th annual International Motor Show in Frankfurt, returning Friday. Between them, the state officials have more than 50 meetings planned with auto and auto-parts makers, Hitt said. They also will have a booth set up at the show’s massive, multi-level exhibit hall, he said.
The S.C. delegation is on a mission to meet company leaders who might want to open new manufacturing facilities in the state and to bolster the state’s relationship with existing S.C. manufacturers, including Michelin and BMW, Hitt said.
Critics say trips like the German mission are a waste of taxpayer money and don’t produce tangible results.
However, Hitt, who worked for BMW in Spartanburg County for nearly two decades, noted South Carolina already is home to more than 250 automotive-related industries. The state has landed more than 60 of those since Republican Haley became governor in 2011 and appointed Hitt to head up Commerce, he said. The state also has become the nation’s top tire exporter during that time.
“We have a variety of pieces of this industry, and we’ve demonstrated we’re very good at it,” he said. “We think we’re the right place” for manufacturers to locate.
Officials with South Korean tire maker Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. said this week in a press conference that they are in talks with South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia about building a manufacturing plant and will make a decision about a site by the end of the year, according to Reuters.
Hitt would not comment on whether state officials will meet with Hankook at the auto show, but the tire maker will be there, according to a list of exhibitors on the show’s website. A Hankook deal could bring more than 1,000 jobs to South Carolina.
“We have become a place to look and so we are getting a lot of looks,” Hitt said. “You don’t land every one, but, hopefully, you land more than your share.”
But Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council think tank, questioned the quality of jobs being created in the state. “There are a lot of questions here that aren’t being asked that really need to be: Are people working in jobs they want to work in? Are income levels up?” she said. “We’ve almost gotten down to this core idea that the highest goal is to have a job and that it is Gov. Haley’s job to do that.”
Landess said there are more pressing issues in South Carolina — including crumbling infrastructure — that politicians should address before they focus on “pie-in-the-sky job creation.”
Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor’s top priority is to have a vibrant and balanced economy. “After making a real mark in the aerospace industry, this is an opportunity to return to our roots in the automotive industry and let companies know we are successful and open for even more business,” he said.
Every state is looking to land auto jobs, Hitt said, because the industry is growing quickly. U.S. auto sales have reached pre-recession levels and are on track for continued strong sales over the next five years, he said.
Unlike airline manufacturing – which only has two major players – there are numerous auto makers, and they are consistently renewing their models and investing in plant upgrades, Hitt said.
BMW, for example, announced in 1992 that it would invest $370 million and hire 600 in South Carolina’s Upstate. Nearly a half-dozen expansions later, the German automaker has invested more than $6 billion and employs almost 8,000, Hitt said.
This is the first time an S.C. governor will have gone to the Frankfurt auto show, held every two years, said Hitt. The trip is expected to cost less than $100,000, a Commerce spokeswoman said.
Hitt said now is the right time for the state to send a delegation to the show.
“The royalty of the automobile industry will be there. CEOs like to meet CEOs. They like to know each other,” he said.
Much of the economic development work done after face-to-face introductions can be done over the phone, he said.
“There are people for the governor to meet that she hasn’t met before whose companies are in South Carolina or whose companies we want to be in South Carolina,” he said.
Considering the potential projects the trip could spur, Hitt said: “It will be a good investment.”