Three big job announcements this year – one in normally placid Chester County – signal the start of a new chapter of commercial development and growth along the I-77 corridor.
The corridor has long been ripe for development but has had to overcome construction delays, a changing manufacturing scene and a major recession. However, big job announcements in recent months and a cohesive planning effort by all counties along the interstate have set up the corridor for success, economic developers say.
When Giti Tire said in June it would establish its first North American manufacturing facility in Chester County, more than 60 miles south of metropolitan Charlotte, it moved bulk economic spillover from the region farther into the Palmetto State than ever before.
Singapore-based Giti – the 10th largest tire company in the world – plans a $560 million investment for the new venture that is expected to bring 1,700 new jobs to the region.
The same day Giti made its announcement, the Lash Group Inc., a healthcare service provider based in Charlotte, said it would construct a 250,000-square-foot office facility next door in York County, making an initial $57.3 million capital investment the company said would increase in a few years to $90 million.
With that also would come 1,200 jobs to the selected Fort Mill site, which over time, Lash said should double to 2,400 jobs.
Later that same day, LPL Financial LLC, billed as the nation’s largest independent broker/dealer, unveiled plans to build a new regional headquarters also in Fort Mill, where it said it would invest at least $150 million by 2022 in the Kingsley Park complex and create 3,000 jobs.
Kingsley Park is located immediately off Interstate 77 at Fort Mill’s Exit 85 and S.C. 160.
“It’s one of the hottest corridors in the Southeast, (certainly) in South Carolina,” said David Swenson, York County’s chief economic development officer.
Those three developments marked the most job announcements in one day – 7,100 jobs and $800 million in investments, the state Commerce department said.
“If you look at what’s happened at Lash and LPL – what we’ve had happen here in York County, at least – and then you go down to Chester County, and what’s happened not far off the Interstate (77) in Fairfield County, and then go into Richland County, the numbers add up,” Swenson said.
Earlier this year, BOMAG Americas, a producer of compaction equipment, milling machines, asphalt pavers and reclaimer/stabilizers for road building and other construction markets, established its North American headquarters in Fairfield County.
The company is building a 127,600-square-foot manufacturing facility and showroom in Ridgeway, representing an $18.2 million investment and an expected 121 jobs.
I-77 originates in Cleveland, Ohio, and covers 90 miles in the Palmetto State, terminating in Columbia at its intersection with I-26. The first portion of the interstate in South Carolina was opened in 1975 in the north end of the state, and the last portion of the freeway was finished in the Midlands in 1995, making it one of the youngest interstates in the state.
Crossing the North Carolina border, I-77 covers eight lanes in York County narrowing to four lanes through Chester and Fairfield counties, before widening out again in Richland County to eight lanes until its end.
Commercial and residential development has followed a “natural progression” from the high-density, developed area in Mecklenberg County and Charlotte in North Carolina, Swenson said, to strong development across the border in South Carolina into Fort Mill, Tega Cay and Rock Hill, and now, to rural Chester County.
This is a corridor anchored by two large population centers: Charlotte and Columbia, said Allison Skipper, S.C. Department of Commerce spokeswoman. “As the greater Charlotte market continues to expand south, and likewise Columbia north, we expect that the I-77 corridor will see increased interest and activity.”
Chester County was the excellent location for Giti Tire, managing director Lei Huai Chin said in June when company plans were announced. It “offered extensive and efficient infrastructure network, including interstate highways, rail, close proximity to airports and a major metropolitan area,” Chin said – necessary components for future growth of the company.
Expectations of a vibrant I-77 corridor have been high in Chester County for a long time. But there have been major setbacks to contend with, said Chester native Bill Marion, not the least of which was the collapse of its major economic driver.
“Who would have thought 50 years ago, we wouldn’t have any textile plants?” Marion asks. “Every time we got close, I think we’ve had to re-invent ourselves, is the big thing. We all thought when it (I-77) opened up, that this was going to open us up to other things besides our textile plants, but our textile plants would grow.”
The Springs Industries mills system and J.P. Stevens employed more than 5,000 people in Chester County at one time operating at least five mills, but all the mills there closed, sending the jobless rate soaring to 20 percent or more. Besides the textile mills, Chester County also lost three other major employers, and Chester County, like the rest of South Carolina, had to slowly claw its way out of that hole.
Another hurdle to growth along the corridor was the fact that I-77 was finished in phases, Marion said. Initially, sections of the interstate weren’t dual-laned, as they all are now. “That (too) came along 10 or 15 years later than we all thought it would,” Marion said. Also, I-77 initially terminated at Fort Jackson. The segment finishing its spanning of Richland County and connecting with I-26 in Lexington County was the last phase completed.
Economic development also slowed drastically during the worst recession since the Great Depression. The recession lasted from 2007 to 2009, but the recovery has been slow and fraught with setbacks. However, in the past few years, economic development in the state has been accelerating.
So, just as a confluence of economic factors may have suppressed the interstate’s growth and development in its early stages, a number of factors may be lining up now that will accelerate commercial activity.
“The one main asset is a corridor of opportunity, which is I-77,” said Swenson, who has led the York County Economic Development board for about eight weeks. Previously, Swenson led the much larger Charlotte Regional Partnership.
Office development has been big in York County and Charlotte, and still is, Swenson said, paralleling national trend lines. Warehouse distribution and manufacturing also have been strong in the region and around I-77, he said.
York County is actively courting 20 economic development prospects, Swenson said.
Since 1990, according to the Charlotte Regional Partnership’s website, new and expanding businesses have invested more than $18 billion in the Queen City and created more than 170,000 new jobs. About 2.7 million people live in the 16-county Charlotte region, which include 12 counties in North Carolina and four in South Carolina.
The partnership, which focuses its marketing activities on aviation and aerodynamics, financial services, energy and healthcare, needs more product – commercial and office space for development, officials said, and is courting approximately 70 prospects.
Another sign the I-77 corridor may be poised to reach a new level of potential growth is formation of the I-77 Alliance, a new confab of the four S.C. counties the interstate passes through – York, Chester, Fairfield and Richland.
The Alliance seeks to brand and market the I-77 corridor to develop new business and industry leads for the region and attract investment, Rich Fletcher, new alliance president and CEO said, and others agreed.
“You typically see industrial parks sprout up around major transportation arteries,” Skipper said. “I-77 offers logistics-related advantages.” Companies with complex supply chains can have close access to Charlotte-Douglass International Airport as well as the Port of Charleston, she said.
“The vast majority of our industrial sites, parks and buildings are located on I-77,” said Nelson Lindsay, Richland County economic development director. “Our manufacturing and distribution base is located on I-77, so it’s a natural connection between what we have to offer and the focus of the 77 corridor.”
Charlotte is a selling point Richland County uses in negotiations to attract business, industry and investment to this region, Lindsay said. Proximity to Charlotte is an advantage, but so is the diversity of types of industrial sites from one end of the corridor to the other, he said.
“That’s the beauty of it – with so much potential there, we think with a little bit of marketing and nurturing that it will take off,” Lindsay said.