By Chuck Crumbo
Published Sept. 18, 2013
WINNSBORO, S.C. — About 80 local political and business leaders packed into the Fairfield County Council chamber room burst into cheers and applause worthy of a home team victory when Element Electronics announced last month plans to open a TV manufacturing plant here
The Minneapolis company’s $7.5 million investment, expected to create 500 jobs over the next five years, was welcome news to a rural county where the jobless rate hovers near 9%, nearly a percentage point above the state average.
In addition, Element said it will move into an abandoned 315,000-square-foot facility that has been empty for years.
What happened in Fairfield County is being repeated across South Carolina as manufacturers move into abandoned factories, build new facilities, and expand existing operations, creating jobs and opportunities in rural communities.
- Essex Holdings, of Miami Gardens, Fla., plans to invest $54.4 million, create 215 jobs and move into an abandoned textile plant in Marion County.
- Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc. plans to spend $75 million and expand its existing distribution center in Dillon County by 1 million square feet and create 200 jobs. The facility employs about 350 people.
- The former Federal Mogul plant in the Clarendon County town of Summerton is being converted into a production facility for Spirit Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Centereach, N.Y. The company is investing $12.2 million and creating 296 jobs.
- Tampa, Fla.-based Masonite International launched production to make interior doors in a new 200,000-square-foot facility in the Bamberg County community of Denmark. The $14 million investment is expected to create 200 jobs.
The revival of manufacturing in rural communities is just part of the state’s efforts to recruit companies and help existing firms expand. Since January 2011, the state has landed more than $9 billion in capital investment and more than 26,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.
Essex Holdings’ decision was news that hard-hit Marion County, where nearly one in five workers are unemployed, was glad to hear.
“The revitalization of this site will be a turning point for Marion County,” said state Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion. “Upon entering Marion, visitors will once again see a thriving and viable plant.”
In Summerton, anticipation of new jobs is building as the Spirit Pharmaceutical facility moves toward launching operations in the first quarter of 2014.
“I get lots of calls from people on how to apply for jobs,” said Dwight Stewart, chairman of Clarendon County Council. “There’s just a lot of excitement out there, just seeing the lights back on and cars in the parking lot again.”
Federal Mogul was one of the area’s largest private employers, providing about 325 jobs, Stewart said. “Now Spirit will bring back almost that many.”
Spirit is just one of three recent economic development announcements in Clarendon County, which in June had a jobless rate of 12.7%.
In May, Advanta Southeast, a maker of reusable packaging, said it plans to invest $3.5 million and create 30 jobs. Advanta Southeast, based in Duncan, will move into an existing 53,000-square-foot building in Manning.
And in January, Swift Green Filters of Canada announced plans to open its first U.S. manufacturing operation in Manning. An initial $3.5 million investment is expected to generate 60 jobs.
“When Federal Mogul left, it was like sticking a pin in a balloon,” Stewart said. “Now, we feel like we’ve turned the corner and are headed in the right direction.”
Any county’s economic prosperity depends on people’s employment in steady, well-paying jobs, said Joseph Von Nessen, research economist at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
“These jobs, in turn, must come from businesses that have an incentive to locate within that county,” Von Nessen said. “Poorer counties tend to be those where these incentives are lacking.”
How soon a rural county might realize the impact of having a couple hundred new jobs added to local economy hinges on a number of factors, Von Nessen said.
“The speed of indirect job creation varies depending upon the supply and demand of the particular industries that are changing, but can happen at a moderate pace or very quickly,” Von Nessen said.
And, how much of an impact a new plant might have on a community also depends on the industry cluster — suppliers that seek to be located nearby.
“Large industry clusters, in which the majority of the suppliers of a new plant are located nearby, have the largest multiplier effects and thus indirect job creation,” Von Nessen said.
“With large amounts of job creation come large impacts in housing demand, as well as demand for a variety of service industries, including legal, financial, education, retail, etc.”
The economist also noted there is a difference between job announcements and job initiation.
“Until the new plants in these rural S.C. counties actually hire the workers and begin operations, the announcements themselves will not start the ball rolling on indirect job creation,” Von Nessen said.
Invariably, local officials characterize economic development announces like Essex’s or Spirit’s as their equivalent to Charleston County’s landing Boeing Co., an aerospace company that employs about 7,000.
“This is our Boeing for rural areas,” said Williams, who represents Marion in the S.C. Senate.
In Marion County, which had an unemployment rate of 16.3% — more than double the state average of 8.1% — the Essex announcement was greeted with a collective joyfulness.
“It gives new life and new hope to the citizens of this great county,” Williams said.
When a company moves to town, people are put back to work, which improves the community’s quality of life and broadens the local tax base, Williams said. That, in turn, provides for schools and municipal services like police, fire and emergency medical services.
“People in this county are accustomed to work because that’s all they’ve ever done,” Williams said. “They just want to be given that opportunity again.”
Recruiting new companies and creating jobs requires patience, a cooperative effort among local and state leaders, and diligence, Williams said.
“It’s always hard and tough to get that first one,” Williams said.