Little more than two years after it was first announced Continental Tire the Americas would be constructing a plant in Sumter, one of the largest economic developments in the area’s history is now officially underway.
The German tire manufacturer has begun production of tires at its newly constructed facility on Highway 521 South. Company executives and economic development leaders made the announcement Friday at a public event inside a warehouse that will soon be filled with locally made tires.
“Two years ago, when we announced this development in the Opera House, this spot was a cornfield,” said Greg Thompson, chairman of the Sumter Development Board. “Look around you now. You don’t see any corn.”
Continental had always expected to go live by January of 2014, but construction of the 1 million-square-foot plant in the middle of the former cornfield moved so far ahead of schedule, the facility’s machinery was in place to start making “test tires” by October.
Those tires, sent back to Continental headquarters in Germany for testing and corporate approval, got the green light from executives. On Oct. 23, the plant produced its first saleable tire, which sat in a place of honor at the podium Friday.
“None of this could have been achieved without your support,” said Sumter plant manager Craig Baartman to the community members and Continental employees gathered for the announcement. Baartman continued, “Even though we've started, we’ll need your continued support as we expand in the future.”
Full production will still begin in January, with the company’s formal grand opening scheduled for Jan. 28. But more than 250 employees are already at work at the facility.
“We’re going to use that window of opportunity to get everybody qualified and up to speed,” Baartman said. “Over the next three years, we will build out to more than 800 people.”
About 600 tires have been produced in the first month of production at the Sumter plant, with 1 million tires slated to roll off the assembly line next year. During “phase one” of the plant’s operations, Baartman said, production should reach 4.6 million units by 2017, reaching full capacity of 8 million units by 2021. By then, the plant will employ about 1,600.
Thompson praised local officials for putting the infrastructure in place, including sewer and water lines running to the site, before Continental even made the announcement, and the voters of Sumter County for approving the Penny for Progress sales tax that paid for the investment.
“It took 18 months to do the construction” on those lines, Thompson said. “This plant was built in less than 24 months. So we don’t have time to secure the right-of-ways and the funding. That needs to be in place before we even start.”
He said the success of Continental and future economic development projects depends on taking a proactive approach to business recruitment.
“If we’re not going to invest in ourselves,” he said, “then businesses are not going to invest in you.”