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Charleston Business

Dorchester County has the largest concentration of boat manufacturers in the state

By Dustin Waters

The old cliche about a rising tide lifting all ships remains true in Dorchester County, which credits itself as the boat-building capital of South Carolina. This just goes to show that even the most well-worn nautical expressions can still hold water. 

With manufacturing and distribution leading growth countywide, Dorchester has recently been home to several major announcements when it comes to business acquisitions. In April, DHL Supply Chain announced plans to construct a new distribution and warehousing center in Dorchester County. The company’s $100 million investment in the area is expected to create 450 new jobs. And while DHL’s impact on Dorchester County will not likely be felt until the distribution center is completed in the first quarter of 2020, the effects of another major project are starting to materialize.

Recently opening in Dorchester’s Ridgeville Industrial Campus, manufacturer and supplier of aluminum cast products Sundaram-Clayton has finally opened its $50 million facility. Looking to continue its working relationship with Dorchester County, Sundaram-Clayton announced a $40 million expansion last fall, bringing in an additional 100 new jobs as they ramp up operations to include around 230 employees. 

“The other part of manufacturing that has certainly been good for us is boat building. We’ve got five boat manufacturers in Dorchester County, so we are building more boats than any other county in the state,” says county economic director John Truluck. “All of those boat manufacturers have seen tremendous growth. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a number of expansions from our boat guys.”

Including Freeman Boatworks, Scout Boats, Zodiac Boats, Sportsman Boats and Key West Boats, Dorchester County has the largest concentration of boat manufacturers in the state. In addition to cornering this interesting market in the Lowcountry marine economy, Truluck says Dorchester County has two major advantages when it comes to workforce development, the first among them being growth. 

“Twenty-four people a day move into the region. That is a saving grace for us. Charleston, if you look at the demographics of the folks who are moving here, they are working-age people coming to the Charleston region,” explains Truluck. “There are places in South Carolina that are growing faster, but most of their growth is in the retiree age brackets. That’s where Charleston is very fortunate in that people moving here are working-age folks between 18-44 years old.”

In addition to a steady influx of younger residents, Dorchester County is home to a large number of workforce development programs, such as the new advanced manufacturing center set to open this fall at Summerville High School. According to Truluck, the county is also working with Trident Tech to increase the college’s presence in Dorchester County, including additional dual-enrollment programs for local students. 

Truluck also attributes a great deal of success to the region’s ManuFirst program, which, in partnership with Trident Tech, is a 54-hour course designed to provide students with the equivalent of one year of manufacturing experience. This initiative came about after local officials realized that the community’s lower-income residents were not experiencing any benefits from the area’s continued economic growth. It soon became clear that a lack of viable education options was the major barrier. 

“How do you take someone who may be working retail or working in a lower-paying service-type job or manual labor, how do you get them in the door at some of these major employers?” Truluck asks. “Well, you have to do something different. It’s a Band-Aid to get us through some of this until some of the kids coming out of high school and technical college are in the workforce. We’re looking for niches of folks to fill some of the voids in the tight job market.”

Looking forward, the main challenge for Dorchester County is sustaining growth in a way that benefits both industry and residents. Striking this careful balance is, of course, a precarious plan, but it is likely the only way to keep everyone’s heads above water. 

“We’ve certainly seen a population explosion, which is good, but you have to be able to sustain that. One thing that Dorchester has historically not done as well at is competing for manufacturers so you have the tax base to support growth,” says Truluck. “With South Carolina’s tax structure, residential just doesn’t pay for itself. So you have to have a good mix of industrial and commercial growth to go along with that. The future is for us to continue trying to manage residential growth and promote the commercial and industrial.”