Tiny Newberry County, home of the famous Opera House and Newberry College, has just stepped up to the plate as a major player in the state’s industrial recruitment game.
Recently the county, home to only 40,000 people, launched the state’s largest certified megasite for industrial development – the kind of tested, optioned and serviced site that attracts the biggest manufacturers. At 2,018 acres, the I-26 Mega Site is by far the largest in the state to meet standards for megasites set up by the S.C. Department of Commerce earlier this year.
The hope is that the fields and pine forests just north of the town of Newberry will attract the Midlands’ first “whale,” an end-product manufacturing giant like Boeing or BMW that will spin off suppliers and create thousands of new jobs. So far, the Midlands region – while rich in government, university and military jobs – has been slow to land a massive manufacturer.
“They aren’t looking for a bean field,” Newberry County administrator Wayne Adams said. “To be in the game, you have to have a site that is prepared and vetted.”
There are presently four identified sites of more than 1,000 acres in the Midlands – in Kershaw, Sumter/Clarendon, Orangeburg and Newberry counties – as well others up and down I-95, such as the White Hawk Commerce Park in Florence County and The Carolinas Mega Site in Dillon County.
All of these sites have been certified to some degree, but Newberry County is the only site that meets standards set by Commerce earlier this year – a set of eight criteria, including access to roads, rail and proper utilities. It is the type of “shovel ready” site that Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt would like to see more of.
“The success of our economic development efforts hinges on the availability of good sites, buildings and parks,” Hitt said. “Working with our partners at the local level, we’ve prioritized product development – and sites like this one in Newberry County are vital to continuing to bring business to the state.”
HUNTING THE WHALE
Industrial recruitment is a highly competitive arena that pits states against states and sometimes counties against counties. The concept of a megasite – or any smaller industrial park, site or pre-built speculative building, for that matter – is to make it as easy and quick as possible for a firm to locate at your location – rather than someone else’s.
Big manufacturing firms in automotive and aviation, for instance, may start by looking at 100 sites in multiple states, according to Mark Williams, president of Strategic Development Group, a Columbia-based firm that advises global companies on site selection across the nation.
All of the firms 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.
Certified sites also are guaranteed to be free of environmental concerns, such as having wetlands or endangered species habitat, archeological or historical significance or soil concerns.
“You try to answer the questions before they get here,” said Teresa Powers, Newberry County’s director of economic development.
But of utmost concern is predictable land costs and fast acquisition. Most firms want to move quickly: Time is money.
“They aren’t going to wait for you to go out there” and put the parcels together for a large tract, Powers said.
Newberry County is second in the state in timber production. So officials used a forestry official to quietly buy up options on 27 different contiguous parcels with 15 contracts to lock in a set price per acre for five years for the huge contiguous tract. Officials wouldn’t disclose the price per acre.
The process took a year.
“It takes a lot of work to get a competitive site,” said Les Hipp, chairman of the Newberry County Council economic development committee.
POTENTIAL GAME CHANGER
But it takes more than a clear title to a big field to attract a whale. Labor is a big part of the game as well. Located between Columbia and Greenville, Newberry can draw trained workers from both metro areas.
“It has an excellent labor draw and is well situated geographically,” consultant Williams said.
And it is a short commute from either city – also attractive to a potential firm. Downtown Newberry to downtown Columbia is 40 minutes. The trip to Greenville is an hour.
“And you’re driving a reverse commute,” Powers said, meaning against the normal rush hours in those two cities.
To bolster its local labor pool, the county last year converted an abandoned Walmart into a branch of the Piedmont Technical College system and installed a curriculum of mechatronics, a combination of engineering and robotics used in high tech manufacturing plants.
The county spent $1 million – $700,000 in state and utility company grants – to put the site together, a substantial amount in a county of only 40,000 people.
But Hipp said the investment is worth it. Most of the land in Newberry County is used either for raising chickens and turkeys, or growing timber. Both of those are taxed and valued at extremely low rates set by the state.
Landing a firm would put more than 2,000 acres on the tax rolls at a higher rate.
Hipp noted that it takes 15 cents on the dollar to provide roads, police and fire protection and other city and county services to an industry. It costs more than that dollar to provide the same services, and schools, to a residence.
Then there are the jobs.
Presently, the Kraft food plant, with 2,700 workers, is the biggest employer in Newberry – processing all that poultry into frozen turkeys and shaved deli chicken. It is followed by a Caterpillar plant with 350 workers and a Komatsu plant with 200 workers.
Adding a Boeing-like manufacturing plant to the mix could double employment in the county, especially if it could spin off suppliers.
“It would be a game changer for the community,” Powers said. “And not just for the community, but the region and the state.”