Business

Verizon building call center in the Northeast

Verizon Wireless' largest call center will remain in Richland County but will move its 1,500 workers to fast-growing Northeast Richland from shrinking Forest Acres.

The Midlands' 10th-largest private employer said Thursday it will open a $40 million, 150,000-square-foot building in about a year just outside the tony Woodcreek Farms subdivision that is home to USC football coach Steve Spurrier.

Verizon has bought about 30 acres along Spears Creek Church Road from the developers of Woodcreek Farms. The developers envision adding a mixture of upscale commercial, residential and retail outlets nearby. Construction of the call center is scheduled to start next week.

Verizon's move will hurt Forest Acres, a small town of about 10,000 neighboring Columbia that, according to estimates, has lost population since the last census.

The call center occupied a large chunk of struggling shopping mall Midtown at Forest Acres.

The mall, owned by a separate company from the call center site, is up for sale. Now the owner of the call center needs a new tenant.

"The space (Verizon is) vacating is a pretty big space, and I don't know that anything is going to be around immediately to fill the space," Forest Acres city administrator Mark Williams said. "Those people obviously spend some money in town."

The mall attracted some Verizon employees, a few of whom said Thursday they mainly patronize the food court.

Thomas McBurnett, who owns Yesteryear Jewelers in the mall, said 80 percent of his business comes from Verizon workers: "If they don't get other things in here, it will totally kill my business."

Verizon said it is leaving as a 10-year lease expires. Efforts to reach the Arizona-based company that owns the part of the mall that houses the call center were unsuccessful Thursday.

The 162,000-square-foot call center, which includes a cafeteria and gym, is listed for sale at $16.2 million.

The nation's largest wireless carrier leaves after tripling employment at the center in the past decade as more people bought cell service. Verizon has added 300 employees locally just this year, bringing its work force to about 1,500.

The 24-hour operation receives about 20,000 calls a day from customers in the U.S. and travelers in more than 220 countries.

Verizon had no intention of leaving Richland County, spokesman Len Abbazia said: "We have developed a seasoned, highly skilled and well-trained local work force in greater Columbia."

Still, Verizon is slated to get some incentives from Richland County, paying the current tax rate for 20 years.

The company also will get a 10 percent credit on its taxes for 10 years to pay for utilities and site work, according to a tentative agreement between Verizon and the county.

County Council still must approve the incentives, administrator Milton Pope said. The breaks are typical for a company making such a large investment, he said.

"We don't want to lose one job," Pope said. "Keeping 1,500 jobs in this environment ... this is a huge statement for our community."

Verizon has requested that its new site be annexed into the city of Columbia. The Woodcreek Farms subdivision is already in the city.

Columbia and the state of South Carolina said they did not offer incentives for Verizon's new site, though the carrier is eligible for state job development credits, the S.C. Department of Commerce said.

While the center helps a state struggling with the nation's fifth-worst jobless rate, the new call center will go on a two-lane road, formerly a rural area, that is among the county's fastest-growing regions.

"We're concerned about the effect it will have on traffic," said Tom Dougall, an attorney who lives and practices at Woodcreek Farms.

But Woodcreek's developers said turn lanes will be added near the site to accommodate the increased traffic and that Verizon will stagger shifts.

"They're not going to have 500 people show up for work at the same time," said Harold Pickrel, managing partner of a firm that sold the property to Verizon.

The developers hope to build up a 150-acre area between Southridge Drive and I-20 along Spears Creek Church Road for retail, commercial and multi-family residential projects. The development is tentatively called Woodcreek Business Park.

The developers have another 1,300 acres that could be built out in the area, including enough to build another 2,500 homes at Woodcreek Farms. It has about 550 now.

"It's all up to the economy," Pickrel said.

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