(First in a series.)
With the economy recovering and the state of South Carolina touting major job creation gains in the past four years, questions are arising at the local level.
To wit: what is the state of Kershaw County’s economy today, is it reaping any of the benefits so loudly trumpeted by the state, and if not, why not?
At first glance, the county, all things considered, appears to be holding its own. Five years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, unemployment was 10.5 percent; as of January 2015 it was at 6.8, according to S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce statistics.
The county appears to have a diverse industrial base as well, with representation in textiles, agriculture, appliances, automotive, chemical, metalwork and distribution by such companies as Suominen, Covidien, TB Kawashima, INVISTA, Prestage Farms, Cal-Maine Foods, Canfor, New South, Haier America, Hengst, Weylchem, Mancor and Target.
Nonetheless, the county’s future does depend a great deal on expansion of the industrial base, and more than a few wonder if the county is receding from sight in the state’s rear view mirror.
Since 2006, Kershaw County has seen 17 announcements representing 1,479 jobs and $392.23 million in capital investment. Of these announcements, 13 were expansions of existing businesses and four were new announcements, according to figures provided by the S.C. Dept. of Commerce.
The four new business announcements occurred in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2012, according to the figures. However, one of those initially projected no new jobs and no capital investment.
Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns, who was elected in 2014, has made no bones about the fact his main priority is economic development; he also has said he is only going to serve one term.
Still, Burns believes much can be done in four years -- if everyone works together to develop a common vision and a plan to achieve it.
Burns says The county appears to have much to offer, including a natural setting, good positioning on transportation networks, human capital, a good history of adaptation and past performance, schools, recreation and tourism with enlightened funding ideas, and engaged leadership.
“I don’t see Kershaw County as a great place -- I see it as ‘the’ great place,” Burns said during a recent Camden Business Alliance event. “We are well-run -- we’re in the black -- we are open for business.”
That said, Burns believes Kershaw County is missing out on new industry opportunities, and such opportunities are key to the county’s future.
“We need to figure out what we’re doing wrong and fix that,” he said.
For Burns, one important aspect of the equation is good customer service. The county needs to take care of its existing industrial customers first, even as it courts new business prospects. And the way to do that is to find out who they are, then find out what they want and get it to them, Burns said.
To that end, Burns has been seeking out and meeting with industry leaders. The No. 1 thing they currently want is a trained, ready workforce, he said. That’s where partnerships with Central Carolina Technical College, Kershaw County School District and its Applied Technology Education Campus, and other such entities come into the equation.
As to attracting new business, “move-in” ready industrial sites and other such infrastructure are important to those efforts, Burns said. The county is working on that side of the equation as well, he said.
So what does Kershaw County have to offer and what does it need to put into place? What are industries looking for and what do they seem to be seeing? Most importantly, why have they chosen to go elsewhere, assuming they ever considered coming to Kershaw County.
Those questions have multi-faceted answers, say those involved in such activities.
According to S.C. Department of Commerce Spokeswoman Allison Skipper, companies seeking to locate in South Carolina do take into consideration a number of different criteria depending on their needs.
As far as the industry recruitment process goes, the commerce department is the lead agency, but works within the scope of Gov. Nikki Haley’s “Team South Carolina” approach, Skipper said. The players involved are at literally all levels, from the state to regional economic development alliance offices to local economic development offices and business groups.
Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter said the county works closely with commerce and the Central South Carolina Alliance to promote Kershaw County locations. Among other activities, the economic development office keeps site location consultants informed of Kershaw County products and advantages, presents up-to-date information necessary for site location decision making, including information on product, utility, labor force, education, and quality of life, he said.
All told, Kershaw County has eight business/industrial park sites in various stages of construction; three industrial buildings are also currently available. Four of the industrial parks are move-in ready; the fifth will be as soon as a water line is extended to the site, Carpenter said.
According to the Kershaw County Economic Development Office’s website, Kershaw County sits at about the mid-point between New York City and Miami, Fla., within 24 hour access to more than 70 percent of the U.S. market.
Kershaw County is centrally located in the state, which gives it a number of advantages, including easy access to the port of Charleston and the cities of Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, and Charlotte, N.C. There are three interstate interchanges on I-20 with industrial park sites and buildings located adjacent to those interchanges; I-26, I-77, and I-95 all are within a 45 minute drive.
These advantages are pieces of the county’s future economic development puzzle. In the next installment of this series, we will explore some of the missing pieces to that puzzle.