Region riding economic momentum

A year ago this week, South Carolina celebrated one of its biggest economic paydays: $800 million in investments and an all-time, one-day record of 7,000 new jobs.

All are slated for Chester and York counties.

On the morning of June 16, Giti Tire announced it would manufacture tires in Chester County, hopefully by 2017. The Asian company – the tenth largest tire maker in the world – promised to invest $560 million and hire 1,700 workers for its new Richburg plant. South Carolina offered $37.5 million in incentives.

Later, in Fort Mill, health care consulting firm Lash Group announced it would move its headquarters from south Charlotte to Kingsley Park near the intersection of S.C. 160 and Interstate 77. The company said it could invest up to $90 million. An existing workforce of 1,200 could double, company officials promised.

Finally, LPL Financial announced it would join Lash in Kingsley, investing $150 million and creating up to 3,000 jobs. The company has 1,000 workers in Charlotte and plans to move most of those jobs to Fort Mill.

While S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt is proud of the recruiting work done by local economic developers and state officials, he is even prouder now as all three projects are swiftly moving toward reality.

The steel skeletons for the Lash and LPL buildings are up in Kingsley. Steel could also soon rise at Giti’s Richburg plant; site preparations should be done by the end of July. Work on the plant will start once the company gets its air permits, said Karlisa Parker, Chester County’s economic development director.

Speedy construction, said Hitt, Parker and other economic developers, is essential as prospects are always asking about “speed to market.”

I-77 Alliance

But the momentum created by the three companies is more than just construction.

The three announcements helped jump-start the I-77 Alliance, an economic development group formed to market the 90-mile corridor between Charlotte and Columbia.

The announcements “solidified the economic vitality of the region,” said Rich Fletcher, president and CEO of the alliance, which includes York, Chester, Fairfield and Richland counties.

Fletcher, Parker and David Swenson, York County’s economic director, said the areas are getting more economic prospect inquiries than before.

For Parker, the inquiries are not tire-related. The direct spinoff development from tire company suppliers many anticipated may not happen, as South Carolina is already home to numerous companies that support existing tire plants. There is the possibility some could open supporting operations near Giti.

Parker is fielding calls from housing developers trying to determine the needs of Giti and the regional housing market.

There’s also more interest in commercial development along S.C. 9, she said. The Giti plant will go up just off S.C. 9 near I-77.

Chester County officials are working on a small area business plan to guide development around the interchange.

“We should be not be short-sighted. We need to plan in phases,” Parker said.

Her hope is the plan will ultimately guide development between Chester and Fort Lawn.

‘Jobs in the new economy’

Swenson said he is getting calls from companies wanting to be neighbors of Lash and LPL Financial in the 626-acre Kingsley complex. He said five prospects – one a corporate headquarters – are showing “significant” interest in York County. Many of the salaries paid by those companies would be double the $36,000 average wage of York County, he said.

The relocation decisions by Lash and LPL Financial, and ongoing recruiting efforts, show “we can create jobs in the new economy,” Swenson said. “We are raising the standard of living.”

Swenson’s predecessor, Mark Farris, said the continued interest in major office development in York County is because Lash and LPL Financial’s decisions to move eliminated questions about location and labor some companies might have. Farris recruited Lash and LPL Financial as the county’s economic development director. He now holds a similar position in Greenville.

The Kingsley complex is also seeking commercial spinoff. Owner Clear Springs Development announced plans to develop Kingsley Village, a retail-restaurant complex similar to Fort Mill’s Baxter Village. A North Carolina-based hospitality company recently announced it will build a 125-room Courtyard by Marriott in Kingsley Village.

Location, location, location

The successful recruitment of Giti Tire, Lash and LPL Financial has also brought into sharper focus the need for marketable sites, economic developers said.

Giti Tire located on Chester County’s megasite, more than 1,000 acres with water and sewer service as well as rail access.

Parker is looking for another megasite “to give us opportunities we don’t have.”

Her ideal megasite would be between 1,500 to 2,000 acres off Interstate 77 with utilities and rail. While there are 4,400 contiguous acres at her disposal, the plot doesn’t meet megasite criteria.

The lack of water and sewer along I-77 is one of the biggest economic development challenges for the corridor, Hitt said. For most of the corridor there is little residential growth, which means there wasn’t normal utility growth, he said.

Fletcher, I-77 alliance CEO, said the challenge will be to get creative with water and sewer funding. Most companies looking for a site either want the infrastructure in place or they want it in a short time frame.

Developers also said the region is land rich but building poor. Many existing buildings available lack the ceiling height needed for modern operations. Requests for unobstructed floor-to-ceiling heights of 30 feet are not uncommon, they said.

Cubic footage is just as important as square footage, developers said.

Nonetheless, Hitt predicted the corridor could see more international development.

Prompted for specifics, Hitt chuckled and replied, “It’s more fun to be surprised.”

By Don Worthington, Staff Reporter with The Herald