For five years, Frank Kelly of Prosperity served barbecue from his Steel Horse food truck to many of the more than 5,000 workers building two reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Jenkinsville.
Business was so good that Kelly spent $50,000 early last year to buy and clear two acres of property just a stone’s throw from the plant’s front gate. He planned to build a 1,500-foot catering kitchen with outdoor seating, the first step on the way to a full-fledged restaurant.
On the morning of July 31, SCE&G finally installed a street light and power pole to get the project started.
“An hour later they closed the gates on the plant,” Kelly said with a wry laugh. “I was just in shock. It was mind blowing.”
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Six months after what was arguably the biggest business disaster in South Carolina history, Fairfield County is still reeling from the blow.
After the projected cost of the twin reactors soared from $11 billion to $14 billion and finally to more than $20 billion, SCE&G and Santee Cooper pulled the plug on not only the project, but the hopes and dreams of thousands of workers, dozens of small business owners and an entire rural county that has struggled with poverty and unemployment since the Civil War.
“I think we’re snake bit,” said Fairfield County resident Carlos Wilson, a retired Fairfield Electric Cooperative worker, as he sipped coffee with friends at the McDonald’s in the county seat of Winnsboro.
“Mack Truck left. Walmart left. Now this,” he said. “It’s been a big hurt to everybody.”
Scores of rental homes are empty. Motels that enjoyed no-vacancies for years struggle for guests.
Frank Chappell of Fairfield County bought and re-opened the vacant 115-room Newberry Motel to rent to the “nuclear people,” he said. The 81-year-old also bought about 90 rental properties, from small apartment buildings to duplexes to single family homes.
For four years, the properties were all full. Business was good.
“Then when the (nuclear plant construction) closed down it completely annihilated everything,” he said. “Most of the nuclear people left the same day.”
He’s trying to sell the properties. Takers are few.
“It was good business,” he said. “But it came to end all of a sudden.”
Fairfield County has put on hold ambitious plans to revitalize downtown Winnsboro, improve neighborhoods, maintain schools, raise teacher salaries, remodel and replace its administration building.
Most importunately, the county is scrambling to finish a sewer project that would bring to life its 1,200-acre industrial mega-site on I-77 that promised to finally put the county, just a short commute from Columbia, on the map.
“We were ground zero for the impact of this,” county administrator Jason Taylor said. “But what do you do? You don’t just curl up and die.”
No one feels the pain more on a personal level than Aradhna Kumar.
The young entrepreneur bought Gill’s 5 to 10 convenience store, located just a few hundred yards from the V.C. Summer front gate, six months before the project shut down.
Business had been good; the future was bright. Workers flooded the store, which was the nearest retail establishment not a food truck for a dozen miles in any direction.
The workers bought beer, cigarettes, groceries and hot lunches nearly around the clock. Despite its name, the store would open at 2:30 a.m. and close at 9 p.m., seven days a week, accommodating the rotating shifts at the construction site and workers at the long-completed Reactor One.
She had three cooks working in shifts at the flat-top grill and fryer in a small restaurant area. Three clerks and a clean-up man kept the store humming.
But about 1:30 p.m. on that Monday afternoon, Kumar’s store became the flash point of the SCE&G debacle. Shortly after the announcement was made to workers that they had been laid off, an impromptu wake broke out. Dozens of construction workers lingered in the parking lot, most wearing fluorescent green or orange shirts denoting their respective job sites, drinking beer and commiserating.
At noon this past Monday, it was a strikingly different scene.
There was only a dribble of customers into and out of the store. A few workers from Reactor One sat at the picnic tables in the grill area having lunch.
And this was her busy time.
“After lunch, there’s nobody here,” she said.
Her business is down about 85 percent, Kumar said. Some display cases in her once packed store are now empty.
She only opens from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closes on Sunday. The staff is down to herself working the cash register, and one cook.
“You just try to survive,” she said. “Trust in Jesus.”
Five miles down S.C. 215, at the Broad River Campground, D Melton is slightly more optimistic.
In 2009, Melton built the 150-space campground near the banks of the Broad River, specifically to cater to the V.C. Summer construction workers. Many of the workers came from across the country with specialized skills. They are used to moving from job site to job site in comfy recreational vehicles.
When the project was shut down six months ago, there was a max exodus from the campground.
“Some stayed a couple weeks or a month, but everybody left,” Melton said. “It was a sad day. We had made a lot of friends.”
On Monday, only 30 of those spots were filled.
“We’re going to have a whole new marketing plan,” said Melton, a Fairfield native who runs a similar campground near the Plant Vogtle nuclear construction site south of Augusta. “We’re going to become a recreational campground.”
He plans to draw “snowbirds” from the north looking for milder climates. Retirees who live on the road. And nurses, construction workers and others who are looking for extended stays for short-term jobs around Columbia.
Like many others in Fairfield County, Melton said he’s implementing “Plan B.” But, he said, the future may prove to be difficult.
“The mood in Fairfield County is a little fragile right now,” he said.