2015 economic numbers less, but regional growth trend continues

By numbers alone, 2015 was a less-than-average year for economic development regionally.

The efforts of Chester, Lancaster and York counties yielded a combined investment of about $3.8 million and the promise of 3,600 new jobs.

Impressive numbers? Yes, but not when compared to 2014 when three projects alone represented an $800 million investment and the promise of 7,100 jobs.

When compared to projects likely to be announced this year, the 2015 numbers seem even less impressive.

Chester County may have hit an economic development grand slam with the courting of a $1.6 billion cellulosic renewable diesel facility that could employ up to 1,400 workers. The company’s name is expected to be released by February or March in a ceremony similar to the 2014 trifecta when Giti Tire, the Lash Group and LPL Financial announced on the same day they were coming to South Carolina. (And equally as important, Giti, Lash and LPL each started construction of their facilities in 2015.)

The successful recruitment of the bio-fuel company represents years of work by Chester officials.

But, as economists often mention, success is not measured by one point in time, but in trends. The trend line for Chester, Lancaster and York counties has been strong for at least the last four years.

When you consider job growth, public and private investment, and gas prices, the three counties compare favorably to other areas.

Smart Asset, a New York financial tech company, studied South Carolina to find the counties with the most local investment. The two-year study measured business growth, business revenue generated, new building permits and the amount paid in municipal bonds. Lancaster County came in ahead of every other South Carolina county, followed by Jasper and York.

Nationally, Lancaster ranked 13 and York County, 107.

What’s driving those numbers is a mix of high-technology jobs, office jobs and solid manufacturing jobs, many of which require high-tech skills.

In Lancaster County, high-tech marketer Red Ventures can’t build fast enough to keep up with its needs. In November the company announced it would build its fourth building – RV4. It is an investment of $90 million that will help support 1,500 new jobs.

Other notable projects in Lancaster County are neighbors in the panhandle region. Keer America, a Chinese firm, started spinning cotton yarn in 2015. The $218 million project was announced in 2013.

Across the road, Movement Mortgage is building its new headquarters, a $22 million project that will create 490 new jobs. About 200 jobs will be moving from the company’s current Charlotte location.

York County continued its string of success in bringing North Carolina companies south. Broad River Furniture recently opened its new $15 million headquarters and distribution center across from Carowinds. Plans by the Cato Co. and its development partner, Lincoln Harris, have spurred excitement over the prospects of another Ballantyne-like retail, residential and office development.

Carowinds kept rolling along, solidifying its claim of being the thrill capital of the South. The theme park opened Fury 325, the world’s tallest and fastest giga-coaster last year. To the dismay of many wooden coaster enthusiasts, it demolished the iconic Thunder Road. That area of the park is getting a complete makeover as Carolina Bay, with more water slides added.

In Chester County, economic developer Karlisa Parker can point to a string of successes that date to 2011. Since then, Chester County has amassed an investment total of $879.2 million and 2,821 jobs.

In 2015, Chester officials had six major announcements: Haddon House Food Products; Footprint LLC; Venus Group; Specialty Polymers; Poly America; and Boise Cascade Co.

Two of the projects, Haddon House and Boise Cascade, were expansions of existing industries, keeping – and adding – jobs in the county.

On the retail side, Harris Teeter and Walmart added groceries in Fort Mill and Rock Hill respectively, and Cabela’s opened its Fort Mill emporium.

Downtown Rock Hill saw two new restaurants – Flipside and Legal Remedy – open, as well as a bottle shop, record and book store, and new offices for Span Enterprises. Family Trust Federal Credit Union became the first “new” tenant in the redevelopment of the Bleachery site as it demolished a branch office and replaced it with a new headquarters.

The Knowledge Park strategy is based on the concept of having one place to live, work and play. Construction of one, possibly two, downtown apartment complexes should help that effort.

As impressive as the trend line is, economic development officials in the three counties understand that increasing the skills of the region’s work force is essential to maintaining their momentum and making the shift to more high-tech, high-paying jobs.

Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park strategy relies on having a highly skilled work force. Studies show that many of those workers already live in the region and commute to Charlotte. But will that be enough to meet future demands?

Once again – as it has been for the past several years – the top priority for 2016 will be having a properly trained work force.

By Don Worthington, Staff Reporter with The Herald