Orangeburg County could shake off decades of being among the state's poorest counties if a Dubai company succeeds in building a sprawling logistics hub there creating thousands of jobs.
The hub near Santee also would transform a mostly rural county into a major regional trade center.
Like many county residents, Norman "Shot" Shuler, a 65-yearold Santee native, said the potential economic benefits of the logistics hub outweigh the loss of the county's rural character.
"It's going to change the area totally," Shuler said. "It can't hurt it. I think it will be for the better."
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Orangeburg County lags the state in average pay and has had a jobless rate significantly higher than the state's for at least 17 years.
In September, Jafza, a subsidiary of Dubai World, announced plans to build a logistics hub on a 1,300-acre site south of Santee along the east side of I-95. The company plans to draw investments of at least $600 million to build a logistics hub employing 5,500 people within eight years.
"It will create an economy that will raise the standard of living for the citizens of this region," said Gregg Robinson, economic development director for the county.
The mostly rural Orangeburg County is one of the largest in land mass in the state, stretching more than 70 miles from the southern tip of Lexington County to the western edge of Berkeley County.
While most residents say they support the proposed Jafza hub for its economic benefits, they say it will come at a cost -- the transformation of the area's rural character.
Jim Myers, a manufacturer's sales representative in Orangeburg, said the proposed Jafza hub is "the best thing that ever happened to this county."
Many Orangeburg County residents travel 30 to 40 miles to work. "It's a depressed area," he said. "There's nothing out here."
For Cinda Ulmer, in western Orangeburg County, the Jafza complex and its potential jobs are welcome.
Ulmer is among nearly 4,000 un-employed Orangeburg County residents looking for a job. The county's jobless rate in September was 9.7 percent, the sixth worst in the state.
Ulmer was laid off last summer after Nibco announced it was closing its plumbing parts plant in Denmark, a town in western Orangeburg County.
The plant provided "very good pay," Ulmer said. She was making about $13 per hour operating a molding machine. Highly skilled mechanics and mold makers earned up to $18 per hour.
Nibco had about 180 employees in Denmark when it announced it would close the plant by year's end. Ulmer had worked there eight years, and many had worked at the site for more than 20 years.
Many employees cried when managers told them the plant would close.
"It broke our hearts," Ulmer said. "If you work with people so long, it's like family."
Ulmer said her husband works, "but nowadays two incomes is what it takes."
While Ulmer has no education beyond high school, job prospects can be tough even for those with college degrees.
Jamie McMillan, who earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Columbia College in 1977, lost her previous job with a local nonprofit after the grant funding it ran out. Her nonprofit work involved helping those receiving government assistance find jobs.
Since early this year, she has been working as a cashier at the Ferse's 5&10, a 101-year-old store in downtown Orangeburg.
Orangeburg County has more unemployed than her former home of Richland because Orangeburg County has fewer services, McMillan said. For example, some residents don't have cars to get to work.
"Here, it's a lot to do with transportation," she said. 'CONCRETE JUNGLE'
Among the most vocal opponents to the Jafza project is retiree Don Antal, one of Santee's roughly 700 residents.
Last year, Antal and his wife, Marie, left the congested Washington, D.C., area to start a new life on Lake Marion in Orangeburg County.
Antal said the logistics hub will spoil his home by adding pollution, noise and an eyesore.
"This is such a major asset for the state," said Antal, referring to the lake. "Why would they locate something here that would be such a concrete jungle?"
Antal helped lead opposition last year to CaroLinks' plans for an inland port at what is now the Jafza site. The Charleston investment group had acquired options to buy the land.
CaroLinks raised the ire of many residents by proposing to use barges on Lake Marion to carry some of the goods from Charleston.
CaroLinks' plans fell apart and "the opposition kind of died away," Antal said.
Although Jafza has said it won't use barges, Antal said he still opposes having a logistics hub nearby.
Antal said he wants the county to attract jobs, but he predicted skilled jobs at the Jafza hub will be filled by people from outside the area. He said the remainder will be materials handling jobs paying $12 an hour.
"The core business is a giant truck stop," he said.
WAGES ARE KEY
Wages will be key in determining how much economic impact Jafza will have on the area, said Doug Woodward, an economist at the University of South Carolina.
Assuming pay is above average for the area, the result will be an economic boost for the state, as it takes advantage of its long-standing advantages as a trade hub, Woodward said.
For Orangeburg, one of the state's poorest counties, the win is even sweeter, Woodward said.
"This is going to profoundly affect that region," he said.
While some have compared the Jafza project to BMW, its economic impact is likely to be less than the German automaker's.
Woodward was the chief author of a 2002 study that found BMW supported 16,700 jobs, including about 4,300 workers at the plant.
Jafza officials have said they aren't sure how much jobs will pay at the site, but workers there would be considered part of the wholesale goods industry by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The bureau counted about 70,000 people working in wholesale trade in South Carolina last year, an increase of about 7,000 jobs since 2000.
The BLS found average wages for those employees -- from dock workers to warehouse managers -- was $49,740 last year, compared with $34,300 for all S.C. employees.
But pay is far less if measured by BLS' survey of occupational pay. The latest survey showed freight-handling workers made an average of $22,300, or $11 per hour, in 2005 in South Carolina.
BMW now employs about 4,500 people, and its production workers make about $25 per hour, or $52,000 per year. BLS figures show pay among automotive suppliers is about $45,400 per year for all workers, including managers.
Unlike BMW, Jafza is unlikely to create many jobs outside the site, Woodward said.
Like a shopping mall, Jafza will spend its own money for the essential warehouse buildings, interior roads and parking. But it will also sell or lease space where other distributors or retailers are expected to open warehouses or light manufacturing facilities, such as packaging.
The need for a logistics hub reflects the nation's shift from a producer of goods for worldwide distribution to a consumer of goods from around the world, Woodward said.
"You can see the future," Woodward said. "They're going to be bringing this cargo into the East Coast. It's coming."
Reach DuPlessis at (803) 771-8305.
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The proposed Jafza hub would dwarf other private employers in Orangeburg County. Now, the biggest manufacturing employer is Husqvarna (formerly Electrolux) near Orangeburg, where about 1,900 workers assemble riding lawn mowers.
The work starts at $9.50 per hour.
Another large employer for county residents is Zeus. The manufacturer of medical tubing pays $13 to $14 an hour.
-- Jim DuPlessis
ON PAGE D4
Orangeburg at crossroads of coming trade routes.
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DUBAI'S JAFZA PLANS SITE
Chuck Heath, managing director of Jafza International, arrived in South Carolina last week to meet with state and local officials.
Jafza paid $10 million in September to buy the 1,300 acres along I-95. It expects to draw at least $600 million in investments and 5,500 jobs to the site by 2015.
The hub will be built over the next three years by Jafza, a subsidiary of Dubai World, a holding company owned by the royal family of the Persian Gulf country.
Heath said Jafza's plans for the site include:
Beginning construction by early 2009
Talking with engineers and architects who might be hired to draft plans for the site
Building an extensive first phase. For a project this size, Jafza usually would spend about $200 million on the first phase, Heath said. It would include core offices, some warehouses and most of the roads and utilities envisioned for full development. "You don't want to be constantly tearing up the road," Heath said.
Leasing out most of the land, not selling it. "We'll keep tight ownership," he said. "When we do sell, it's very selectively -- to a company with strategic value."
Mimicking the atmosphere of a park or campus, Heath said. "I don't want it to look like an industrial site," he said. "It's a beautiful piece of land, and we want to keep it that way."
Creating -- or cultivating -- noise barriers. One idea is to use belts of trees to muffle the sounds of trucks and steel shipping containers. "We don't want to be disruptive," he said.
Preserving existing wetlands as much as possible. Greenways will be created, and public access areas will be built on the edges of the property outside the security line.
Using local professionals to design and build the project, if possible. Heath sent two engineers from Dubai to South Carolina in late October to begin meetings with U.S. companies.
-- Jim DuPlessis