Clarendon County: The "Wheel" Deal
Oct 02, 2017 10:48AM ● Published by Makayla Gay
By John Jeter
Photo copyright Bloomberg 8/17/2017
Corporations interested in taking Clarendon County out for a spin needn’t look any further than Arnold Kamler. The CEO and president of Kent International, billed as the nation’s largest bicycle manufacturer, is something of a spokesman for one of the county’s most publicized expansions in the last few years.
Kent, which builds 350,000 bikes a year under its Bicycle Corp. of America brand, garnered attention from the likes of Bloomberg and The New Yorker in just the last year—an economic development official’s marketing dream.
“It’s aggressively marketing and telling our story,” says George Kosinksi, executive director of the Clarendon County Economic Development Board.
Part of that story is Clarendon’s explosive 20 percent increase in per capita income from 2010 to 2015, the latest figures available from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The sixth-largest of the eight Midlands counties ranked just below leader Lexington County in per-capita income growth during that period, BEA numbers show.
While Kosinski’s big push now is the county’s newly certified, 1,400-acre “mega-site,” let’s go back to Kamler. The 67-year-old exec, whose family started in the bicycle business in New York in 1906, is Clarendon County’s fourth-largest employer.
What makes a New Jersey-based company want to invest $10 million to open a plant that now builds 4,000 bicycles a day?
“Not just Clarendon County, but South Carolina,” he says, “I was rather taken aback how unselfish everybody is, just the giving nature of people, without looking for something in return. When somebody does something nice for you—what do you want in Clarendon County and in South Carolina?—they’re just nice to you, and in return you give it back.”
Just two miles from downtown Manning, the factory opened in October 2014 and plans to assemble as many as 500,000 bicycles, which retail for $79 to $299. Wal-Mart, its largest customer, purchased 220,000 of the South Carolina-built bikes last year; 280,000 are expected this year.
“The Manning plant could increase the number of American-made bikes tenfold almost overnight,” The New Yorker reported in August 2016—the first mass-produced bicycles made in the U.S. in nearly 20 years, according to the Central SC Alliance.
That helps account for the company’s $215 million in revenues last year, with 12 percent of that coming from the Manning operation.
Kamler says county and state officials chased him down like a Tour de France rider going after the yellow-jersey leader, and then-Gov. Nikki Haley closed in on him when she promised gas.
Kamler says none was available within four miles of the property…until a state Commerce Department official called the Governor’s office. “About four hours later,” Kamler recalls, “my phone rang, and I said, ‘If I can get South Carolina to provide gas, I’ll do it.’ Now all of Manning has natural gas because of us.”
Kosinksi says the county’s pumping the pedals hard on the recent certification of Clarendon’s shovel-ready mega-site along five interchanges of I-95. Since the county’s purchase of the site’s first 100 acres 10 years ago, Kosinski says, “We’re hoping one day it lands the big fish, an OEM-type company.”
Developed in conjunction with adjacent Sumter, Lee, and Williamsburg counties, the mega-site, one of only three such sites in the state, mitigates site-development risks for companies considering expansion.
“If Toyota and Mazda want to take a look, we’re happy to entertain them,” Kosinksi says. “These automotive projects, you don’t get maybe one or two a year that will take a look in the United States. We want to have the mega-site ready to get them to take a look.
“Let’s show them that we’re doing something so that, when the next project comes through, there’s nothing they can cut us for.”
Among other criteria that can make a deal, he says, is workforce.
“Every economic developer is going to tell you they have the best workforce in the county. Our industries say, ‘We give them a task, they do it,’” he says. “We have a highly motivated and loyal workforce that is eager to go to work, and if they feel as if they are appreciated, and they are compensated accordingly, they will stick with you.”
Land and labor, Kosinski says, are the key differentiators for Clarendon County.
“Rural South Carolina is always at a slight bit of a disadvantage,” he says. “We don’t get all the looks that Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston get, so we need to look for things that kind of set us apart. We’ve made sure we’ve got plentiful product.”