Business growth in Fort Mill area a sign of continued recovery

In a steady, county-wide recovery from the economic downturn that hit in 2008, the Fort Mill area is playing its part. Now the trick will be landing more leading roles.

Last week, York County Council chose Fort Mill-based ESP Associates from 10 bids for work evaluating potential industrial and commercial sites for future development. County and Rock Hill development departments are leading the project. Council’s approval begins contract negotiations on what should be a roughly $30,000 effort.

“York County does not have a particularly good assortment of available commercial properties,” said Mark Farris, director of the York County Economic Development Board, located in the Fort Mill Library in Baxter. “There’s an acknowledged need for additional property.”

Pending an agreement, the Fort Mill company would evaluate three Rock Hill properties of more than 60 to almost 500 acres. The program is designed to identify and evaluate properties on the eastern side of the county, near I-77.

Farris called 2012 a “pretty significant” year for Fort Mill’s economy, with more than 600 new jobs and $80 million in local investment coming to the area just with relocations of Britax Child Safety and Shutterfly. Red Ventures in Indian Land announced 1,000 jobs, and smaller additions like Keller USA and Nation Ford Chemical added multimillion dollar investments.

In the coming months a 1 million square-foot project will be announced on the Rock Hill side of the river, but Fort Mill area growth should be stable and static, Farris said. Large projects like those his office works with generally take about 18 months from first contact to announced plans.

“The pipeline is stable, but not spectacular,” Farris said.

Opportunities like the more than 500 acres around Knights Stadium and the welcome center on I-77 could provide future business possibilities, he said.

At the same Jan. 24 Council meeting, the county awarded a contract for renovations at its Heckle Boulevard office complex in Rock Hill. Part of that work is needed to form development services space to speed up the permitting process to make building and construction development “more efficient and business friendly,” according to county documents.

Howard’s General Contracting in Fort Mill initially beat out 10 other bids, but had to pass on the project after finding work on a $75,000 project at York Technical College before the county job was finalized. The company also spent Monday breaking ground now on a playground at Spratt and White streets in Fort Mill.

“My outlook is very positive,” said owner Lance Howard. “I can’t complain.”

Howard began his business about a year ago, so he can’t compare the current economic climate with recent down years in construction. He also can’t speak for what larger companies might be seeing. His smaller status is what’s helping him submit competitive and winning bids.

“I don’t have high overhead like some of the bigger companies, so I’m able to compete,” Howard said. “It’s me, myself and I.”

In Fort Mill, indicators show a steadily improving climate in the construction business. Permits were down 35 percent in the most recent fiscal year, due largely to the influx of roof replacements and other, smaller jobs associated with the prior year’s hailstorm damage. While the number of permits dropped last year, the revenue from them rose 61 percent.

Meaning more larger jobs are coming in, particularly in new home construction.

There’s been activity in-town from a planned Family Dollar move to a freestanding building to the filling out of Pendleton Village near Lowe’s Home Improvement. Trudie Bolin Heemsoth, director of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Fort Mill Area Council, said a group like hers typically will “lose a few and gain a few” members without wild spikes in membership.

“Recently we’ve had more that we’ve gained than we’ve lost,” she said.

The Fort Mill Council is now at more than 200 members; Its Tega Cay counterpart at more than 50.

“It seems like things are picking up a little bit,” Heemsoth said. “We have a lot of people coming into our offices looking for relocation packages.”

Several factors could impact business in the coming months, notably continued work on the Fort Mill Southern Bypass. Experts say housing and other large land use industries there could benefit and that developers are showing interest. There’s also the traffic impact to Tom Hall Street and the downtown section of Fort Mill once the bypass opens an alternate route for many.

A positive sign, some say, is that business in Fort Mill isn’t confined to any one sector. Experts aren’t sure if or when business might pick up to pre-2008 boom levels, but they’re hoping the diversity of growing economic activity will mean a reduced chance of going bust, too.

“It’s just across the board,” Heemsoth said.

By John Marks, Staff Reporter with Fort Mill Times