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Orangeburg sees transport links as key to growth

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Orangeburg sees transport links as key to growth

The Post and Courier

Workers at Allied Air Enterprises stamp out pieces of steel that will become heating and cooling units in Orangeburg County/City Industrial Park Monday.

ORANGEBURG — Each day in Orangeburg County, several shifts of workers turn pieces of thin steel plating into sleek air heating and cooling units. Another produces thousands of feet of insulated underground cable for electric utilities.

Over at Husqvarna Home Products, employees assemble about 2,000 lawn mowers for distribution to homes across the country at the peak of the season.

The manufacturing sector is growing in Orangeburg, South Carolina’s second-largest county by size, just inland from Dorchester County. In the past 12 years, dozens of companies have opened industrial facilities where employees make all kinds of goods or handle imports for other employers around the Southeast.

Officials now hope to build on that to lower the largely rural county’s 10 percent unemployment rate, the sixth highest in the state as of July.

They say they’re making headway, thanks to the proximity to several major interstate highways, the availability of reasonably priced land and relatively easy access to the Port of Charleston. And they don’t foresee an end to the activity anytime soon.

In recent weeks, the area has been in the international spotlight after numerous but unconfirmed reports noted that a United Arab Emirates-based company is considering a massive $600 million to $700 million industrial park development near Lake Marion.

“It’s been a very exciting time here to see the area attract this amount of attention,” said Bill Clark, county administrator.

On notice
Located about 70 miles from Charleston, the county’s emergence as an industrial destination began to take hold around 1995, when council members called a public meeting about the area’s economic future, Clark said. More than 100 people attended the forum, which was held in a warehouse that recently had been vacated by a window treatment company.

Residents called for better jobs, and the business community felt the biggest economic lure was the undeveloped area where I-26 and I-95 intersect. So politicians proposed a penny increase on the local sales tax to invest in assets that would attract employers, such as industrial parks, better roads, and new water and sewer lines.

Residents approved, and when the tax was set to expire in 2004, they voted to extend it.”It sent a notice … to the outside world that county residents have embraced the concepts of economic development,” Clark said.

Over the years, the county’s improving infrastructure and expanding portfolio of industrial parks have drawn mostly manufacturers. A smaller number use their warehouse

space to break down and redistribute imported containerized goods to companies throughout the Southeast.

Over the past five years, the area has attracted 170 business expansions or new industries that have invested more than $625 million and created nearly 3,400 jobs, according to the Orangeburg County Development Commission.

Meanwhile, executives and site consultants who are scouring the country for a favorable place to expand have been checking out the area more frequently. Last year, the commission estimated it played host to nearly 100 such visits.

In recent years, much of the economic growth in Orangeburg has been concentrated in an area known as the Global Logistics Triangle, bordered by interstates 26 and 95 and U.S. Highway 301. About 2,000 acres in and around that site have been identified as ripe for development, said Gregg Robinson, a former state Commerce Department official who is now the development commission’s executive director.

But Robinson said the proximity to I-26 and I-95 isn’t the only calling card. Also coming into play, he said, are interstates 77 and 20, which link the Midlands with Charlotte and Atlanta.

Real estate costs are another factor. Property is much cheaper in Orangeburg than in the Charleston area, where pressures from residential developers have driven up land prices. For example, the starting per-acre rate for commercial property along I-26 around Jedburg is about $50,000. A similar parcel can be had for $22,000 less than an hour’s drive inland.

The interest in Orangeburg is “pretty simple” to explain, said Thomas Buist, an industrial real estate broker with Grubb & Ellis/Barkley Fraser.

“It’s location, price and the port expansion,” Buist said.

That’s not to say Orangeburg will overshadow Charleston anytime soon. Despite the higher real estate costs near the coast, some warehouse operators feel they need to be as close to the port as possible. As a result, the market in Charleston still is going strong from the Clements Ferry Road corridor to the red-hot Jedburg corridor. But Buist noted that manufacturers usually have more flexibility and don’t need to be as close to a port.

Bob Barrineau, an industrial broker with Charleston-based CB/Richard Ellis Carmody, said the growing industrial base up the interstate doesn’t pose a major threat to Charleston even though they compete directly for new businesses and jobs.

“If anything, I think it helps add more depth to our market,” he said.

Taking action
About 8,200 of the roughly 41,200 employed workers in Orangeburg County earn their living in the industrial sector, with some making products that consumers take for granted, such as galvanized highway rail guards or automotive disc brakes. At the Sara Lee Bakery, workers whip up about 56 million loaves of bread each year, according to the company.

Still, the county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, with more than 4,000 out of work in July, according to the most recent figures from the state Employment Security Commission.

Robinson said many residents are underemployed, meaning they could qualify for better jobs if those jobs were available.

He and other officials predict the employment base in Orangeburg will continue to expand. One of the driving factors is the $600 million shipping terminal that the State Ports Authority is getting ready to build on the former Navy base in North Charleston to relieve congestion at its other yards. It is expected to open in 2012.

About 25 percent of Orangeburg companies, such as treated-lumber exporter Cox Wood Industries, already rely on the port, Robinson estimated.

Ahead of the new terminal, the county is taking measures to make itself more alluring as a business destination. For example, it’s installing infrastructure that can support future industrial parks, and a new freshwater-treatment plant is set to open next spring.

Also, county leaders recently approved construction of a 150,000-square-foot warehouse that should be completed by mid-2008. The speculative $4.5 million building will help the county court companies that are pressed for space immediately, said Robinson, who estimated that there’s less than 200,000 square feet of industrial space in the county available for lease or purchase.

In addition, a study is under way to evaluate the best place to build an industrial park in the western section of the county.

Meanwhile, at least one private developer is eyeing Orangeburg, though its plans have not been finalized. Charleston-based Carolina Linkages Inc., or CaroLinks, proposed about a year ago to build an industrial park on 1,000 acres in the Santee area near Lake Marion. But Jafza International, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates and based in Dubai, reportedly is considering that site as well, as part of a larger project.

CaroLinks spokesman Alan Capper declined to comment.

Neither proposal sits well with a vocal group of nearby residents who are opposed to a large-scale industrial development in their community.

“We don’t see that being compatible with the tourism and recreation goals of the Santee area and our giant asset of the lake … regardless if it’s CaroLinks or Dubai or whomever,” said Don Antal, a member of the Friends of Santee Cooper Lakes who lives just outside Santee.

Robinson also said he couldn’t comment specifically on the CaroLinks or Jafza project, but he said the Orangeburg region is continuing to draw interest.

“We have a lot of attention from companies that are looking to invest in the Global Logistics Triangle,” he said. “If there aren’t, then something’s wrong.”