When the BMW automotive plant located in South Carolina’s Upstate in 1994, it required 1,200 acres with good transportation networks.
When Boeing decided to put its 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in the Lowcountry in 2009, it needed more than 700 acres next to an airport with a suitable runway.
But if a high-impact industry chooses to land in the Midlands, it probably won’t be in Richland or Lexington counties. The Midlands’ most populous counties simply don’t have the amount of acreage already assembled and outfitted with utilities, roads and railroads to accommodate what economic development officials call a “whale.”
Those are companies that creating thousands of jobs at their own plant and spinoff companies. As Labor Day approaches Monday, economic development officials say a more likely location for one of these job creators would be at one of the “mega sites” already staked out in Kershaw, Sumter/Clarendon or Orangeburg counties. And at least one official says it’s just a matter of time before the Midlands region attracts a whale.
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“While we have industrial sites in the mix, there aren’t any of real size,” said Nelson Lindsay, Richland County’s director of economic development. “We would have to try to pull it together.”
The largest site in Richland County is about 500 acres at the foot of Shop Road at Pineview Road. The largest in Lexington County is 414 acres in the Saxe Gotha Industrial Park at the end of the 12th Street extension at I-77, where the Amazon.com distribution center is now located.
“But there’s a fair amount of unencumbered land in the county,” said Chuck Whipple, Lexington County’s director of economic development. “It’s how quick you can assemble it.”
Searching for mega sites
And speed is of the essence, said Mark Williams, president of Strategic Development Group, a Columbia-based firm that advises global companies on site selection across the nation.
“Site searches have a very quick pace,” said Williams, who served as chief development officer at the S.C. Department of Commerce in the 1990s under the administrations of former governors Carroll Campbell and David Beasley. “They are probably looking at 100 sites in multiple states. They don’t have time to find out if the sites are available (from groups of private owners).”
Large manufacturing firms like Boeing, BMW, Continental Tire and others are looking for basically the same things. In addition to generous incentive packages from states and counties and no unionization headaches, they want sites that already are serviced with water and sewer, have convenient interstate access and existing rail lines, among other factors.
One of the most important aspects, said Williams, who in 2011 helped broker the Bridgestone Off-Road expansion in Aiken County, is knowing in advance that the site is available without question and at a set price.
“Companies don’t like to enter into situations where there are a number of private landowners” which would slow down the acquisition process and drive up the price, he said. “The strong preference is to have the land assembled. When you are making quick decisions, you want to squeeze the risk out.”
That’s where the Midlands’ more rural counties have a leg up. With lower land prices and more of it available, Kershaw, Orangeburg and Sumter/Clarendon each have assembled mega sites of about 1,400 acres. (The I-95 mega site crossed the border of Sumter and Clarendon counties).
“They’ve done a good job of being ready when the time comes,” Williams said.
Lugoff site has ‘everything’
Officials from the S.C. Department of Commerce and the Central Carolina Alliance – the regional economic development agency for the Midlands – declined to be interviewed for this story about the various mega sites in the Midlands.
The closest one to Columbia is in Lugoff, adjacent to the sprawling suburbs in Northeast Richland. It is located on I-20 not far from the Richland-Kershaw county line. The “available” sign can be seen on the north side of the highway as drivers head east toward Florence.
Kershaw officials began assembling the land in 2010 when Lindsay, now Richland’s economic development director, was working in Kershaw. Now Peggy McLean is Kershaw’s economic development director.
The 1,400-acre site is owned by the Conder family, which has agreed to sell it for the set price of $15,000 an acre, according to the county’s economic development department. By contrast, the 500-acre Shop Road/Pineview site in Columbia is listed at $30,000 an acre.
The sales pitch for the Lugoff site is that it has all the necessary accoutrements – a rail line, a location adjacent to an interstate highway and water, sewer, electric and telecommunication service. It also is located within a one-hour drive of more than 1 million people, providing an ample workforce.
The site can support a 3 million-square-foot facility. The Boeing plant, by comparison, is 1.2 million square feet.
“You can put a mighty big facility on our mega site,” McLean said. “And it’s got everything.”
The site also is certified, meaning all potential requirements, such as geotechnical, archeological and soil studies, already have been completed and paid for by the county and documented by experts in the field. That saves the company substantial time and money.
“The fact that those things are documented is a very positive step in the ultimate attractiveness of that site,” Williams said.
More jobs, but no ‘whale’
There have been significant economic announcements in the Midlands. They’ve included the expansion of the Bridgestone and Michelin tire plants in Aiken and Lexington counties respectively, the Amazon.com distribution center and Nephron pharmecutical plant in Cayce and the new Continental Tire plant in Sumter. But the region has not yet landed a whale.
“We haven’t had that large project announcement,” Lindsay said. “That’s lacking in the Midlands. But that presents an opportunity for us.”
High-impact manufacturing plants like Boeing and BMW require lots of suppliers, smaller firms producing everything from fabric for seats to carbon fiber for fuselages. Tire companies and distribution centers, which the Midlands has in spades, don’t generate the same spinoffs.
“If you have an opportunity to land the whale you want the whale,” said Lexington County’s Whipple. “But we’ve done well here in the Midlands – look at the numbers. They don’t have the multiplier affect. But (in baseball terms) I’ll take the singles and doubles and triples because they add up.”
The Midlands surprisingly outpaced the Lowcountry and the Upstate in job creation in the 2011-2012 fiscal year – the peak of its recent jobs announcements. Of the jobs created that year, 9,500 were in the Midlands, according to S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. The Upstate created 6,400 jobs. The Lowcountry grew by 4,500 jobs.
Consultant Williams predicted that a high-impact project announcement is “just a matter of time.”
“The labor draw is excellent,” he said. “The interstate access is excellent. The proximity to the port (of Charleston) is excellent. The Columbia area is right for something like this.”
And whether that whale lands in Orangeburg or Kershaw, Richland or Lexington doesn’t matter that much in the long run, both Whipple and Lindsay said.
“You want the tax base, but you’ll take the jobs,” Lindsay said. “Everyone would benefit from that.”
“We are all chasing it,” Whipple added. “But then we want it to become a regional project. Because a rising tide lifts all boats.”