The Buzz

Visions of Volvo and a yearning for ‘something better’ in SC

The gate at the main entrance to Camp Hall, an old timber plantation that could be the site of Volvo’s first American manufacturing plant.
The gate at the main entrance to Camp Hall, an old timber plantation that could be the site of Volvo’s first American manufacturing plant. JASON RYAN

They call it Pringletown, but you get the feeling that might be overstating it a bit.

There is no stoplight, no commercial center, and it’s not even officially a town – more of a rural community. Sandwiched between Interstate 26 and MacDougall Correctional Institution, Pringletown contains a number of trailer homes, some country churches, a gas station and a couple of tiny strip malls filled with empty storefronts.

It is, in other words, one of the last places you would imagine seeing a slew of sporty new Volvo automobiles.

But the Swedish automaker is reportedly considering building its first American manufacturing plant in the pine forests of western Berkeley County near Pringletown, possibly transforming an old timber plantation known as Camp Hall and owned since 1929 by MeadWestvaco into a world-class auto-making facility that could employ as many as 4,000 people.

If you listen to the locals, Volvo would be a welcome addition to the community. As it stands now, they say, there are not enough local jobs, and few pay good money. Most people in the area commute to Summerville or Charleston for work, sacrificing healthy portions of their paychecks to fill up their gas tanks each week.

“You just wish there was something better,” said Lucinda Ambroise, who was getting a haircut Thursday at the Pringletown salon Shear Blessings by Monica, next to the Dollar Daze variety store. “Everybody works so hard.”

Ambroise lives about 15 miles away in Summerville but makes a point of traveling to Pringletown to have her hair styled by her friend and salon owner Monica Pringle Pelzer. Both women think local residents would benefit from having a Volvo plant just up the road, especially neighbors who lack cars and must bicycle or walk to work.

The residents of Pringletown are religious and hard-working, “salt of the earth” people, Ambroise said.

If Volvo decided to build a plant in South Carolina, said Pelzer, it would be “awesome.”

“It’s bringing opportunity to the area,” Pelzer said.

‘Something that’s needed’

About 5 miles south, across the interstate and the county line, Scott Vaughan stands at a meat counter in the back of Vaughan’s General Store in downtown Ridgeville.

A former transport hub that sent much Lowcountry timber, cotton and turpentine off by rail in the 19th century, Ridgeville is now a sleepy town in Dorchester County. Its population is about 650, if you don’t count the 957 inmates at another nearby prison, Lieber Correctional Institution, which is within the town limits.

That’s Ridgeville, not to be confused with the S.C. towns of Ridgeland, in Jasper County; Ridgeway, in Fairfield County; or Ridge Spring, in Saluda County.

Vaughan, whose general store has been open since 1933, is wearing a BMW baseball cap. His daughter, he explained, works at BMW’s auto plant in the Upstate, and “she loves it.”

Should Volvo bring the same types of jobs to Ridgeville, he said, it would be widely appreciated.

“It’s something that’s needed,” he said.

But he has mixed feelings about the development that likely would accompany the auto plant. More jobs in the area means more people, more subdivisions and more stores, most of which he predicts would be built outside of downtown Ridgeville.

With so much growth, Vaughan frets, his mom-and-pop general store and adjacent furniture business might not fare so well, unable to compete with chain stores, closer to the interstate and highways.

Pringletown and the nearby community of Lebanon, he said, likely would undergo major changes, too, for better or worse.

‘You know everybody’

A few blocks away, a man is bundling a long electrical cord in the hallway of the Hazel S. Parson-Starkes Municipal and Community Service Building.

Behind him is a mop and bucket.

This is Mayor James Williams, who came to City Hall Thursday to fix an overflowing toilet.

“I do it all,” said the mayor. The town’s clerk, water clerk and janitor all had called in sick that day, he said.

Williams was born and raised in Ridgeville. He left town to join the Navy and “saw the world.” Then, he moved to New York City in the 1960s, where he worked as a subway supervisor. In 1988, he came home.

“I wanted to get back to a place where you don’t have to lock everything up,” said Williams, “even though I do lock everything up.”

Ridgeville is a “quiet place” and a “nice place to live,” he said. There’s little crime – except for speeding motorists.

“It’s an area where you know everybody and everybody knows you,” Williams said. “I guess that’s it. There’s nobody to bother you.”

Williams says he tries to warn residents that change is coming to the town, regardless of Volvo’s decision, and they better get used to it.

But some residents, he said, don’t want to hear that message.

‘Looking for more’

Across town, Angie Lee Crum operates the Ridgeville Community Resource Center.

A lot of Crum’s time is spent helping people find work. She also administers a food pantry and programs that help with medical needs, utility payments and emergency home repairs. In 2014, Crum said, the community center helped 3,250 people.

When it comes to local job seekers, she says, many people are hoping to secure work that pays more than minimum wage.

“It takes more than that, especially when you have a family,” she said.

Some people dismiss jobs because they don’t pay well, she said, even though Crum argues that “at least it’s a little something.”

“Some people want to grab at anything, and some people want to start at the top,” Crum said. “But you can’t always start at the top.”

Should Volvo decide to build a plant nearby, Crum is skeptical that local residents would be hired en masse.

She credits synthetic graphite maker Showa Denko Carbon for being an excellent local employer and said that if Volvo should follow the Japanese firm’s lead, it would be a tremendous boon to the area.

“It will be a great, great asset to the community,” said Crum. “We’ll see when it gets here.”