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Charleston Business

State of the Low Country: Land Between The Ports Distribution Network Spurs Growth

May 10, 2018 08:04AM ● By Makayla Gay

By John McCurry

   The seven-county region that comprises the jurisdiction of the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance (SCRDA) economic development agency may not get as much publicity as some of its counterparts around the state, but it has attracted an impressive array of investments in recent years. International firms are increasingly interested in the region, largely due to its proximity to the Port of Charleston and the Port of Savannah and the distribution networks extending from both.

The largely rural SCRDA region is comprised of Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. Beaufort joined the group last September, giving it more diversity, as it seeks light manufacturing and high-tech companies.

Food processing, industrial operations serving South Carolina’s automotive and aerospace sector, plus an array of solar farms are among projects coming to the region over the past few years. To prepare for more investment, counties are developing industrial parks.

“I learned early on that if you don’t have a place for them to land, there’s no way you will get one,” says Heyward Horton, regarding industrial recruiting, adding that there is not a lot of private development of speculative industrial sites, so local government must fill that role.

The Colleton County Commerce Center, a 260-acre certified site, currently offers a 100,000-square-foot industrial spec building. Horton says the county is focused on recruiting food processing companies and suppliers to the aerospace and automotive industries. Crescent Dairy and Beverage located in the Colleton Commerce Center a few years ago. It produces ultra-pasteurized milk targeting the South Carolina market.

Kay Maxwell, SCRDA vice president says 2017 was the region’s busiest year yet. Asia-based companies of all sorts, as well as companies in the advanced composites business, have been scouting potential sites. She adds that she hopes to be announcing an investment by a Canadian company soon.

“We market more than 20,000 acres of industrial property as a regional alliance,” Maxwell says. “We own and operate several industrial parks and spec buildings and have great ability to negotiate and market those. We also market county-owned buildings."

Maxwell says that in addition to marketable land, the region’s biggest asset is its proximity to two significant seaports. She adds that the food processing industry has grown in the region, and anticipates more investments during the next year. Companies being recruited include candy manufacturers, commercial bakeries and canning operations. She credits the investments to the region’s growing population and distribution infrastructure. Also driving investment are the aerospace clusters in Charleston and Savannah.

“As a result, you have more manufacturing than you would think in this rural area of South Carolina,” Maxwell says.

Two major ball bearings groups have landed in Walterboro over the past few years. Meter Bearings, an Italian firm, opened a facility in 2015. JGBR, a Chinese company, began operations in 2017 to serve the automotive and mechanical industries.

Solar companies have invested heavily in the area to develop solar farms. The latest announcement comes from Spanish firm OPDE Group, which is investing $63 million in a solar farm in Bamberg County. Cypress Creek Renewables, one of the largest solar developers in the U.S., announced a 16-acre solar farm in Barnwell County in 2017.

Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing, founded in New York City in 1907, opened a southern operation in Bamberg in 1967, and eventually moved all of its manufacturing there. The company makes specialty washers, gaskets, and other parts to customers’ specifications. About half of its production goes to the aerospace industry, with its biggest customer being GE.  

Robert Hurst, CEO, is the third generation of his family to run the business. His grandfather bought the company from its original owner in the 1920s. Hurst says Phoenix’s business has been doing well over the past couple of years. He currently employs 108. The company has grown through the years and invested in modern equipment.

Hurst also sits on the board of SCRDA. He says the organization gained strength when it added Beaufort County last year. The addition helps the region’s image, he says.

“There aren’t a lot of colleges in our area, and with Beaufort coming in with its manpower and statistics, it improves how we can be looked at from the outside,” Hurst says. “In my attitude, it’s a bad rap. We have good people here, but maybe not all the colleges and bells and whistles that others might be looking for.”