Brian Willette invested $80,000 in a food truck that, since March, served construction workers at the V.C. Summer nuclear station near Jenkinsville.
But since the construction project suddenly ended July 31, Willette — who owns Doza Rizen restaurant in Chapin — has been scrambling to find other customers.
“This is a huge hit,” Willette said. “But I didn’t lose everything – some people have nothing but hope.”
He is one of many people in the Chapin jolted by the project’s termination. Town officials estimate that about 1,000 area residents lost their jobs when SCE&G and Santee Cooper decided to abandon the project, which was several billion dollars over budget. Overall, 5,000 workers lost their jobs.
Chapin Mayor Skip Wilson told SCE&G in an Aug. 7 letter that “I’ve had the unfortunate experience to witness the emotional impact your decision has had and will have on families” in the area.
Leaders and residents of the northern Lexington County community — about 10 miles from the Fairfield County nuclear site — are rallying around neighbors suddenly jobless:
▪ Hundreds came to a job fair Monday at the Center for Advanced Technical Studies, a school run by Lexington-Richland 5. Another for trade skills will be Aug. 22 at the life center at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church.
▪ Impromptu neighborhood garage sales are popping up with promises the profits will be donated to those unemployed. Town officials also are seeking to arrange a fund-raiser at Chapin High’s home football game Sept. 1 against Irmo.
▪ Town Hall’s website — chapinsc.com — includes listings and advice on ways to get food, clothes and medical care free as well as information on finding jobs.
▪ A few restaurants are offering free drinks and sandwiches to any former plant worker who shows a pay stub.
“We’ll make it through,” Wilson said. “But people will be more cautious until their lives settle.”
In his letter to SCE&G, Wilson said many workers laid off “will suffer and their lives may be negatively affected for many years.”
After the shutdown, an additional 51 area homes were put up for sale by Aug. 10 compared to 22 that went on the market in the week before the decision, real estate agents say. “The supply has jumped up for now and I expect it to increase even more,” said Brent Downing of the local Century 21 office.
While sellers face increased pressure to sell more cheaply, “the demand for properly priced, good-condition homes is still there,” he said.
Bill Hess, who was an engineer at the plant since 2010, is preparing to move in with family in Florida to help reduce expenses while waiting for his home near Chapin to sell.
“If a job comes up that would let me stay, I would take it,” said Hess, 64. “But they’re not knocking on my door. At my age, finding one might be a worthless exercise.”
Joshua Pope, who left Las Vegas to work as an instrument technician at the nuclear plant about 18 months ago, came to the job fair eager to find a position that would let him remain in the Chapin area. “I would like to stay here, but if I have to travel, I will,” he said.
The shutdown will have a more immediate impact on rentals because many workers came knowing the work would be temporary, residential developer Stewart Mungo of Mungo Homes said. “We haven’t seen any shake-out yet,” he said.
But the wave of unemployment is spurring Lexington County officials to try to speed up completion of a 220-acre site on the north edge of town designed to become home for technology firms.
Developing the site has been slowed by a series of missteps that stirred political conflict. Now it’s time “to be more focused on getting it done,” said County Councilwoman Erin Long Bergeson of Chapin.
But attracting interest may be more difficult because county officials thought the nuclear plant would be a magnet for such businesses.
Meanwhile, some local businesses are acting to avert a significant loss of patronage as well as assist those stunned by the unexpected shutdown of the project.
Jerry Caldwell, owner of The Coffee Shelf restaurant and bookstore on Amicks Ferry Road, is stepping up advertising and promoting concerts in his shop to cope with what he expects will be slower sales indefinitely. He’s also given free coffee to those laid off, calling it a neighborly gesture that helps ease uncertainty for a bit.
“Many people don’t know yet about their future,” he said.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483