The potential closure of Element Electronics in Winnsboro, population 3,300, hits doughnut shop owner Crystal Paulk personally. She knows by name just about everyone who walks into her business.
“When something like that happens, we’re like a family,” Paulk said. “We’re all affected. I have to think about these families. That could be me.”
The Element plant could be the first in South Carolina to close because of tariffs on Chinese imports recently imposed by President Donald Trump. The closure would cost the community 126 jobs.
TVs at the plant are made out of components that are imported from China, and the tariffs make assembling the TVs here a losing proposition, the company has said. The company is fighting for a waiver but is bracing for shutdown.
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Winnsboro is the seat of Fairfield County, where a third of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment among its nearly 23,000 residents is second highest in the state, and, despite periodic rebounds, the population has fallen steadily over the past century.
“This is going to be a ghost town,” said Winnsboro resident Herbert Workman as he sat at his regular table at the Barn Xpress restaurant. Workman is known as “Chew” to his friends because of his habit as a child of nibbling on pine rosin, a nod to the county’s timber industry.
Even though Donald Trump easily carried South Carolina and enjoys strong support from Gov. Henry McMaster, Fairfield County is not Trump country — 62 percent of voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Still, some people in the town place faith in the president, even suggesting the tax on flat screens might have been an oversight.
“Why would you put a tax on an American company?” said Ty Davenport, the county’s director of economic development. “We think it was a mistake.”
Terry Vickers, director of the county Chamber of Commerce, said everyone she talks to has high hopes the administration will help Element. Element spokesman David Baer did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are definitely a glass half full kind of town,” said Vickers, who has been running the chamber for 22 years. “Who would have thought when these tariffs were proposed that they would affect us right here?”
Time here is measured, residents say, by a bell that has tolled the hour for 125 years. The clock tower is the oldest in continuous use in America, and its foundation, like many older buildings downtown, is local blue granite, cut from 19th century quarries closed since the 1970s.
Pine saplings grow, are harvested after a decade or two, replanted and grow again for another harvesting. Fully 84 percent of Fairfield County’s 687 square miles is trees; the timber industry supports about 100 jobs.
“We’re a wood basket,” said Davenport.
Pines grow on land where cotton once flourished until depleted soil, erosion, bug infestations and foreign competition killed the industry by the early 1900s, said Vickers.
The area’s majority African American population is a vestige of the pre-Civil War era, when Fairfield County’s labor force was primarily made up of slaves. Winnsboro’s tourism flyers dub it “the Charleston of the Upcountry” for its expansive antebellum cotton plantations.
“That property has remained in those families,” Vickers said. Her office in the second floor of Winnsboro’s clock tower is stuffed with framed photos of the town’s past glory: the quarries, mills and mansions. “Pine trees became the cash crop.”
The evidence of bygone prosperity is visible around Winnsboro’s main corridor, Congress Street. Pre-Civil War town homes line streets running parallel to Congress, and a nearly 200-year-old courthouse designed by pre-eminent antebellum architect Robert Mills stands at the center of town. Most of the old structures these days need a coat of paint and about half the storefronts are empty.
Retired educator Marie Rosborough said she remembers as a child in the 1950s when Congress was two lanes, lined with oaks and full of shops.
“Downtown was booming. We had all these little shops. We lost the Belk department store and other shops when Walmart came,” Rosborough said. “And then we lost Walmart.”
In 2013, then-Gov. Nikki Haley stood with Walmart CEO Bill Simon, chief buyer for Element TVs, and held up the Winnsboro plant as an example of global trade working for rural America.
“South Carolina has transitioned into an advanced manufacturing state, and today’s decision by Element Electronics to build their flat-screen televisions here is another sign of that change,” state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said at the time.
Fairfield County leaders had pulled out all the stops to lure the nation’s only television assembly plant to Winnsboro.
All the parts in its five American-model TVs are Chinese, company owners acknowledge. But it was residents of the largely rural Fairfield County who would be bolting them together for sale at Walmarts across the country, including the one right there in Winnsboro that would close a couple years later.
The county used a $1.2 million state rural development grant and $600,000 in borrowed cash to buy the old Manhattan Shirt Co. that it could lease to Element Electronics for $1 a year. The county also granted Element tax breaks that further helped the operation’s owners pay for improvements to the site, including adding air conditioning.
The hoped-for payoff on all this public and private investment: 500 jobs Element promised to bring.
Vickers remembers the night in 2013 when the Element announcement was made during a County Council meeting.
“It was standing room-only,” Vickers said.
Rosborough, the retired educator, said the community rejoiced.
“Having industry in our county, it gives parents the ability to expose students to opportunities,” she said.
At the northern end of a three-mile commercial stretch of Winnsboro’s 321 Bypass, Element’s 314,000-square-foot converted textile plant counts three fast food restaurants, the county’sonly middle and high schools, the empty Walmart and the county’s soon-to-be-shuttered public hospital among its nearest neighbors.
Three miles south is the old Mack Truck factory.
The career aspirations of many students Rosborough met over the years had been to work at the Winnsboro Walmart. Her greatest fear: that children today are not exposed to enough opportunities to know what they are missing.
“There are people here who have never seen the ocean,” said Rosborough, former deputy superintendent for Fairfield County schools. Winnsboro is about a two-drive to the coast.
A century of decline
Fairfield County had long needed the help.
The county’s population reached its zenith in 1910 when it stood at 29,442. Five out of the next six census counts saw declines, with a low of 19,999 by 1970.
Buoyed by the Mack Truck factory that opened in 1987 and ramped up its production line to as many 1,300 employees by the late 1990s, the population surged to nearly 24,000 by the early 2000s. But Mack Truck left town in 2002, and the company that bought the abandoned plant a couple years later shut down in 2011.
Since 2010, 100 to 200 people have left Fairfield County every year. In seven years, the county lost gains that took 20 years to build.
In 2016, the local Walmart closed, taking with it 165 jobs. A year later, in the summer of 2017, the aborted V.C. Summer nuclear power plant expansion cost Fairfield County another 250 to 300 local jobs — and robbed it of potentially four times that number had the plant been completed, said the Chamber’s Vickers.
“The expansion would have been great,” Vickers said of the V.C. Summer plant, “but Fairfield County is no worse off having lost that.”
By fall of 2017, one of the community’s oldest employers — a century-old tire-cording maker — had also shut down, costing another 240 jobs. And now tariffs threaten an additional 126 jobs at Element.
Fairfield County Council Chairman Billy Smith said that with an unemployment rate just under 6 percent and a labor force hovering below 10,000, 126 jobs are a lot — and the trickle-down effect just as bad.
“That extra, disposal income is just gone,” Smith said. “And the sustenance income. That’s a huge impact for us.”
Max el Bayoumi, owner of Italian Garden restaurant, said he felt the impact of V.C. Summer’s aborted expansion immediately. Eighty percent of the more than 5,200 temporary construction jobs on the site were eliminated within a day of the plant’s decision to halt work.
“People stayed in town not even 48 hours,” el Bayoumi said. “They used to call in and get takeout. It was a big and bad empty spot,”
Employment growth in Fairfield County since July 2014 has been flat at 0.3 percent and the total number of people working or looking for work here actually declined 2 percent. By contrast, South Carolina as a whole has been booming, with an 11 percent gain in workers since July 2014.
Taking a break from her buffet lunch at Barn Xpress, Ann Price said every piece of good news about jobs here is answered with equally bad news — or worse — about job losses. The state has reported two economic development projects here since 2014: paving equipment maker BOMAG and toymaker Enor, which together brought about 270 jobs. But layoffs since that time have outpaced those gains more than three to one.
“It just seems like Fairfield County keeps getting clobbered,” Price said.
‘Assembled in America’
Entering 2018, Element was already operating on zero profits because of an existing 4.5 percent tariff on flat screens that its owners had expected would be lifted a couple years ago, said Davenport, the economic development director.
Legislation to lift that tariff under the Miscellaneous Trade Bill is set to be passed, Davenport said, but Trump’s new tariffs have rendered those efforts moot.
It was on July 6 that Element got caught up in the Trump administration’s tariffs on a range of Chinese raw materials and components worth a total of $34 billion. Tariffs on an additional $16 billion in goods are set to go into effect Aug. 23. This comes on the heels of broad import tariffs on washing machines, solar panels, steel and aluminum earlier in the year.
As the situation stands now, China can export components to Mexico, where factory workers can assemble TVs and export them to the United States at no cost. Consumers still get their TVs, but no Americans get jobs.
Winnsboro was just right for Element Electronics, Vickers said, because it had the right space at the right price in the right location. Winnsboro is a two-hour drive to the Port of Charleston and is a 10-minute drive to two major interstates — 77 and 26.
Element spokesman and chief counsel David Baer testified in May before the U.S. trade representative on how his company leveraged global supply chains to create jobs in the rural community.
The flat screens that modern TVs rely on are not manufactured anywhere in the United States, he testified, and should be allowed to come into the country without any tariffs.
“I think the value of having the key component, the panel, which is 70 to 75 percent of the cost of the TV and not available in the U.S., having that component available, being off the list and allowing that to come in without the additional duty allows not only Element but multiple producers to come into this marketplace, employ thousands of U.S. workers and assemble televisions here in the U.S.,” he said.
Baer and other Element executives were optimistic they would prevail, said Davenport, the county’s economic development director. Earlier this summer, Davenport said, the TV maker was dangling the possibility of rapidly expanding should the Trump administration opt to hike taxes on finished TVs and waive taxes on the components that Element imported.
The taxes on finished Chinese TVs may yet happen under another round of tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods the Trump administration is investigating now. But that will be too late for Element if the tax on components stands.
“Three months ago they were going to expand,” Davenport said. “Then 12 to 14 days later the list changed. Now we’re back to bringing TVs in from overseas, and we went from gaining about 400 jobs to losing 126.”
While leaders jockey for tariff waivers, longtime residents who have seen companies come and go express a different sort of optimism — more along the lines of survival. There’s a church in Fairfield County for every 110 people.
“This is the hand we were dealt,” Paulk said, leaning on her doughnut shop’s counter in downtown Winnsboro. “What are we going to do? There’s still going to be hope, a ray of sunshine. You’ve got to keep pushing.”
The county’s Smith said his council recently voted to invest in water and sewer lines, and Davenport said the county has also poured money into paving a road through a nearly 700-acre commerce park on Interstate 77 to try to bring more industries to the county.
“We have been doing everything we can to encourage growth in the county,” Smith said.
Still, Davenport said, he wishes Element could just stay.
“It’s a lot less expensive to keep Element Electronics here than to recruit a new company,” he said. “The cost per job — think about that.”
Chew Workman drove a truck from 1979 until 2005 for the companies — the Manhattan Shirt Co. and then Perry Ellis — that once occupied the Element plant. That was before the 48-year-old building had air conditioning, but people loved working there, said Workman, now retired. It was close enough to town that people could walk to work.
He eats breakfast and dinner every day at the Barn Xpress in Winnsboro and meets his friend, lifelong Winnsboro resident William Tate, most days. Tate’s daughter, Glory, works at Element.
“She’ll probably find another job,” Tate said.
“It’s a good place to live,” Chew Workman said. “Ain’t no jobs, but everybody knows everybody.”