Five years from now, construction crews should be clearing a 6½-mile swath through the woods of Lower Richland to build a new, four-lane corridor where thousands of people will work.
If it were the only change coming to Lower Richland, it would be dramatic.
After years of laying the groundwork, Richland County is pouring resources into Lower Richland, with the new economic development corridor accompanied by other growth-inducing changes coming in short order to the lower third of Richland County. The county’s plans are creating a sense of urgency among residents who treasure the area’s rural character but want good-paying jobs for the next generation.
“They’ve been asking for development, and I hope they’re prepared for it, because it’s coming their way,” said Councilman Damon Jeter, a former member of the county’s economic development committee. “I hope we can find the balance.”
At the urging of an expectant County Council, a new land-use plan to guide where developers can put subdivisions and manufacturing plants alike should be done by the end of the year.
There’s no doubt the $71 million Shop Road Extension, which boosters see as the logical expansion of an industrial corridor that evolved at its intersection with I-77, will change southeast Columbia. Eight-year-old plans done by the S.C. Department of Transportation show four potential paths for the road, now to be paid for with a voter-approved penny sales tax, connecting the end of Shop Road to Trotter Road at Garners Ferry Road.
The parkway will access thousands of acres of raw land attractive to manufacturers, call centers, warehouses and distributors. New developments will join other large employers in Lower Richland such as the McEntire Air National Guard Base on U.S. 378, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel on Bluff Road and International Paper in Eastover.
• The county is assembling 500 acres at the head of the road project, at Shop and Pineview roads. The $5 million investment in raw land for an industrial park should be ready for its first tenant by summer 2016, based on interviews with county officials. The industrial park will be accessible from both Pineview and Bluff roads, economic development director Nelson Lindsay said. Setting aside that land for heavy industrial growth puts it right where it can compete with Lexington County’s I-77 industrial park, which landed the anchor Amazon Distribution Center in 2011. Richland County’s site boasts access to I-77 and two rail lines.
• The county also is installing 24 miles of sewer line between Hopkins and Eastover, a $20 million project allowing suburban subdivisions to spring up. Said planning director Tracy Hegler: “Installing water and sewer can generate growth but doesn’t have to, if the county and public want to institute policies to maintain rural character.” Developed through a series of community meetings, the county’s long-range plan envisions spacious residential lots, which could be a sticking point for future developers. “What we heard from residents is they want to maintain the rural character and not see suburan growth they’ve seen elsewhere. So that’s what is in the plan.”
• Separately, a subsidiary of SCANA is building a new natural gas line for 29 miles through the lower part of the county to serve International Paper. While the gas line is being built specifically for the paper mill, Lindsay recently briefed county leaders about it, saying it’s yet another part of an attractive infrastructure for new jobs.
Taken together, the investment in roads and utilities is unprecedented for Lower Richland.
Many are apprehensive.
Carol “Carleen” Eaddy of Hopkins has been hearing about the potential for development in Lower Richland for 30 years or more. She’s ambivalent. She likes being able to shop at a grocery store close by, for example, but also likes stepping out the back door to open spaces.
Eaddy said the county must be more proactive. “I want to see our representative sitting down more with the people in the Lower Richland community and keeping us more abreast of what is going on,” she said. “Don’t wait for the red flag to pop up and say, ‘Oh, I need to call a meeting and let the citizens know this is coming.’”
The county hasn’t nailed down specifically where industrial development should occur beyond the 500-acre industrial park on Pineview Road.
But Hegler, the planning director, said residents were made aware that the county’s new 10-year blueprint targets a Shop Road/Bluff Road corridor for economic development just as it does on the other side of the county, outside Blythewood. For Bluff Road, the economic development designation stops before Mill Creek, viewed by residents as an environmentally sensitve area that should serve as a boundary for industry.
There’s a lot of land that could be in play, commercial real estate agents say.
George McCutchen, with Newmark Grubb Wilson Kibler, noted that some industrial sites just south of town are being pushed out or “repurposed” as the University of South Carolina and its students congregate around Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Extending an already existing industrial corridor makes sense,” he said.
Chuck Salley, director of industrial brokerage for Colliers International, said Richland County’s industrial park will be in a great position to compete because it offers interstate access as well as dual rail service by both CSX and Norfolk Southern lines.
“It will compete well with anywhere in central South Carolina,” Salley said.
Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, he said, and those are higher-paying jobs that would be real plums for Richland County. “You could be looking at thousands of new jobs – manufacturing jobs and jobs in distribution – for a site like that over as many as three or four substantial projects.”
McCutchen said he wouldn’t be surprised if Richland County could fill its 500-acre industrial park in 10 years.