State of the Low Country:Berkeley County Experiencing Phenomenal Growth
May 10, 2018 07:47AM
● By Makayla Gay
By Kristine Hartvigsen
Berkeley County is in the throes of a healthy growth spurt that’s been ramping up in recent years. Last year, County Supervisor Bill Peagler proclaimed, “Berkeley County is open for business, and Berkeley County means business!” This year, he touted additional investments led by prominent companies such as Med-Ally, Thermo King, IFA, Repower South, and Volvo.
“Volvo cars is a great example of the many successes we have seen,” Peagler said in his 2018 State of Berkeley County address. The European manufacturer of high-end automobiles recently announced it was expanding its already bustling operations center in Berkeley County. Volvo is constructing a new 2.3 million-square-foot manufacturing plant that, by the end of 2018, will serve as the global production site for Volvo’s new S60 sedan. A redesigned XC90 SUV also is expected to be produced at the plant in 2021. By that time, Volvo is expected to have 4,000 employees on payroll, bringing its total investment to $1 billion.
“We strive to ensure that the best industries are calling Berkeley County home. We want only the best to invest in Berkeley County,” Peagler said. “We are focused on ensuring that our growth is smart growth.”
Nearly 500 employees already are on the job at Volvo, and an estimated 1,000 more will be needed by the end of this year. Training is a key priority, and Volvo is creating a free-standing training center with laboratory and research space in the former American LaFrance plant off Cypress Gardens Road in Moncks Corner. ReadySC, part of the state’s technical college system, will manage the center when it opens later this year.
In addition, Trident Technical College’s Division of Continuing Education and Economic Development partnered with Volvo Cars, Berkeley County Workforce Development, the South Carolina Department of Commerce, and ReadySC to develop a Lean Manufacturing Certificate for applicants who lack manufacturing experience.
“The Lean Manufacturing Certificate Program, which includes 62 hours of training, teaches the processes and procedures needed to qualify for modern manufacturing jobs,” Trident Tech President Dr. Mary Thornley explained. “Volvo Cars agreed to count successful completion of the Lean Manufacturing Certificate Program as one year of manufacturing experience. More than 150 Berkeley County residents completed the program and are currently in the Volvo employment pipeline.”
“Volvo Cars is on the verge of producing vehicles in Berkeley County and already investing more. This speaks to the vibrancy of our county,” Peagler said. “We’re thankful Volvo Cars believed in us more than two years ago and are honored they’re strengthening and growing their commitment here.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Berkeley County was the 17th fastest-growing county in the country last year, adding more than 8,000 residents between 2015 and 2016. Today, the county’s population has ballooned past 210,000 people and counting. Over the past two years, the county has experienced more than $1.5 billion in new economic development investment that comes with thousands of jobs for area residents.
Such rapid growth is not without challenges. Many civic leaders are concerned about roads and infrastructure. The South Carolina Ports Authority has made more than $1.5 billion in infrastructure improvements, including additional dredging to accommodate the world’s largest container ships. When completed, the additional dredging will give Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast (52 feet).
Leaders at the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce have expressed concern about road capacity to meet a continuing influx of workers and residents. In revising its comprehensive plan, Berkeley County Council has formed a subcommittee to lobby the General Assembly for additional state funding for roads.
Another concern is that the Trump Administration ordered tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively, on steel and aluminum imports. The immediate market reaction was a panic-buying of materials that drove prices up. In response, European leaders threatened to impose their own 25-percent tariffs on U.S.-made automobiles. According to the SC Chamber of Commerce, South Carolina is the country’s leading exporter of completed passenger vehicles. Volvo Car Group President and CEO Hakan Samuelsson told reporters at the March Geneva International Motor Show that half of the cars manufactured at the Berkeley County plant are slated for the export market. President Trump has temporarily exempted allied nations, including the European Union, from his metals tariffs, so it is premature to speculate how changing trade policies might immediately impact the Volvo operation.
The rapid growth also comes with pass-along benefits. Roper St. Francis Healthcare is building a brand new hospital at Carnes Crossroads off Highway 17A. The 140,000-square-foot facility will have 50 beds and a 24/7 emergency department and is expected to create 215 jobs the first year it is open. Construction is slated for completion in 2019.
“This project is instrumental to not only meet the needs of this rapidly growing community but also to ensure Roper St. Francis Healthcare continues to provide the best access to quality care,” said Lorraine Lutton, president and chief executive officer of Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “This is a significant investment by Roper St. Francis Healthcare into Berkeley County, and it will be a major focus for us going forward.”
The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) also recently announced it will operate a health care clinic onsite at the Volvo plant to serve workers. Though the plant is not yet fully staffed, the clinic is up and running for the growing ranks of employees.
Preparing workers for the boom in manufacturing in the area is also expected to generate business for institutions of higher education, particularly technical and community colleges. Trident Tech has continually aligned its offerings with the needs of area employers.
“As an example of Trident Tech’s response to identified high-demand needs, our Area Commission recently approved 10 new certificates in Applied Science. … Certificates are the College’s rapid response to an identified workforce need,” Thornley said. “The college is also working to expand training capacity in high-growth areas. Construction is underway on the more than 200,000-square-foot S.C. Aeronautical Training Center in North Charleston. We are also requesting the funding required to expand our Berkeley Campus in Moncks Corner to meet the needs of the many industries that are locating in that area.”