A perfect pairing

People are always searching for the perfect pairing with their wine. As Chester County Economic Development Director Robert Long told members of the Chester Rotary Club recently, the “perfect pairing” for Gallo Wines is Chester County.

Long briefed Rotary members recently on some of the details of the deal just closed to bring the E.& J. Gallo Wines to Chester County, just outside of Fort Lawn. The project will bring almost 500 jobs and $423 million in investment, and that’s just in the first phase. The plant will be about 1.5 million square feet.

Long told the Rotarians that the Gallo project began life as Project Eco (which stood for East Coast Operations) and morphed into “Project Magma”. The Rotarians learned that the first time
Gallo considered Chester County it was under the code name “Project Lava” about five years ago, until the company decided to pull the plug at the time.

That’s not uncommon for projects, Long said, they may heat up and then when the economy or other factors change the outlook, the project can go dormant or be shelved, until later.

Long said in his 26 years of economic development experience, “I’ve put more work more hours, more meetings and more visits into this project than any other project I’ve ever worked in my entire career,” he said. Long said the consultant for Gallo has been in Chester County at least 15 times.

Long said be the time he came on board in Chester County in October, the Gallo consultant had narrowed their site choice down to several communities (“we weren’t the only community in South Carolina”) and Georgia. We competed very heavily with a community near Savannah Georgia.

“Developers who are working with a large project are looking for a reason to boot you out of the search and not keep you in; they’re starting off with a search that includes over 100 communities and well over 1,000 sites, and they’re trying to narrow that down to a manageable number so they can begin site visits,” Long said.

He said both Karlisa Parker Dean and Jeff Burgess, who was interim Economic Development chief after Parker Dean retired had done a lot of preliminary work to get sites certified, working with Duke Energy in their site readiness program – completing wetlands mitigation, environmental work and preparing sites for economic development.

“We have about a dozen certified sites, more than any other community in the state, as far as I know.  That was done to put us in a position to take advantage of when you have an opportunity like this.

“The developers needed a site that was 400 acres and was dual-rail served (a rail system served by more than one rail line). We had a site, the old L&C Tract “M” that met that initial requirement. Dual rail is pretty rare…the L&C Railroad is a vestige of the former textile industry. It was built by Springs and goes from Lancaster to Chester…in the universe of projects that need rail, that’s about 10%. But if you need rail, why would you not want to be on the L&C short line and have both Norfolk-Southern and CSX competing for your business?” Long said. He said the Gallo project will more than double the amount of usage on that L&C short line.

Once a county has “made the cut” when it comes to a potential selection, that’s when the site visits begin and the company starts looking at things like community and workforce, Long pointed out.

“I tell people when you look at workforce, you can’t look at Chester County in isolation; by itself, Chester County makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a small rural county of about 32,000 people…when you look at the labor draw, with about a 45-minute drive time to work, that’s where we shine. The two fastest growing counties in the metro Charlotte area are our neighbors, York and Lancaster Counties,” he said. Long said had it not been for the labor draw hat combines Chester, Lancaster and York Counties, Chester would have not been able to attract industries such as Giti Tire, Carolina Poly, Roseburg and now, Gallo. Long says the housing developments that are coming to Chester means that the county can begin to grow their own workforce.

Talking about the company, Long said E.&J. Gallo is the world’s largest winery, not just in the United States. Their existing plant in Modesto, Calif. is just under 300 acres and there is no room to expand their location there. Long believes the East Coast operation in Chester County “will be a new beachhead for Gallo. The initial project we announced recently is just the “appetizer”. We don’t know what the long-term potential of this project is going to be yet,” Long said.

He went on to say that the county’s textile heritage has helped I the long run, because the mindset of having a family-owned company will be familiar to those who words for  or their relatives, worked for Springs Industries during the textile heydays. (In fact most of the land from this project is land that was part of the former Springs Industries).

Gallo has dozens of brands and hundreds of different products underneath their E.&J. Gallo Winery umbrella, Long said. He said 20% of the grapes that are already grown in S.C. are grown by Gallo vineyards.

When it comes to the economy and the rise and fall of inflation, recession and boom times, the wine industry is “about as close to a recession-proof (company) as you can get, in that good times, bad times, recession, you name it, people still drink. I don’t want to make light about people drinking during a recession, but from an economic development perspective, having a large employer that is going to have 500 jobs and in good times or bad times, they will be a stabilizing force to our labor force,” Long said.

The state contributed about $23 million to get Gallo here, Long said, which included acquiring the original 400 acre site and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the stream mitigation that needed to take place. Some of the behind the scenes work also done by the state was establishing a “land bank”. A land bank is land that is reserved in perpetuity that will not be developed on. The land bank site will about 500 acres of land adjacent to Landsford Canal State Park, effectively increasing the footprint of the state park to almost double.

Long envisions some amenities that could spring up as a result of this – he would like to see a pedestrian bridge across the Catawba River connecting the Chester County side of the park and the Lancaster County side.

“I also enjoy zip-lining, and I would love for us to develop a leadership development course, one where you also have some zip lining across the river,” Long said.

Another key part getting Gallo to South Carolina was the tasting room legislation that the General Assembly put into place: once the tasting rooms are up and running, consumers are able to taste up to 10 oz. of product and take home a total of six bottles per month.

Finally, Long said the site in Fort Lawn has some potential for expansion and the company could expand to and up to five million square feet of facility over time.

“I’m pretty confident that once they get here, they’re going to grow, and we’re going to be announcing an expansion every three to five years, for the foreseeable future,” said Long.

By Brian Garner, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter