Orangeburg County development commission's Gregg Robinson talks about the ones the county landed and the ones that got away
Jan 08, 2019 11:18AM
By Kathleen Maris
By Dan McCue
Gregg Robinson wasn't getting any peace on a recent Monday, and that was just fine with the executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission.
After a slowdown of activity ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, prospects were lining up again, eager to learn how the county could make their dreams of growth and prosperity come true.
"I've never seen a midterm year so affect the [economic development] market," Robinson says when he could finally come up for air after five hour-long meetings with various corporate representatives.
"You had the election, and you had Brexit, then came the caravan from Mexico, and then there was the business of Trump, just in general, all the things dominating the new cycle, and the next result was stagnation in the commercial real estate market," he explains.
"2018 was strange in that you'd look around you or listen to Bloomberg and things seemed like they were pretty good. There were days when the stock market absolutely soured, but there definitely was a sense of uncertainty in the air, a sense of disruption, and that made manufacturers, among others, nervous and made it much harder to get them to pull the trigger on an investment," Robinson adds.
As the lead actor in Orangeburg's economic renaissance since 2005, Robinson has announced more than $1 billion in new capital investment and the creation of nearly 2,000 new jobs in the past 14 years.
And where people used to think of Orangeburg as an ideal location for warehousing and logistics operations, he and his counterparts in county government have expanded its palate to include everything from aerospace to hospitality. As a result, heading into 2019, Orangeburg County ranks in the top 10 of the state's most industrialized counties, boasting 13 international companies.
Typically, the dance to get a company to commit to Orangeburg takes six to nine months to come to fruition. In 2018, Robinson says, it took considerably longer, with even those smitten with the idea of coming to the county sometimes taking as long as a year to sign on the dotted line.
"A prospect usually starts looking for a new site with a circle of potential locations in mind, and then they kind of work their way down to a circle within the circle, and then a circle within that, and finally, you're it—it's kind of like a duck trying to find the right pond to dive into," he says with a laugh.
A lot of times, it helps to have a legacy company in the area from the same business sector as the prospect, or from the same country, but that didn't help much last year.
"We have two privately owned Chinese companies here in Orangeburg that are going strong, but the tariffs imposed on Chinese imports by the White House have definitely cooled the interest of some significant projects that were considering us," Robinson says.
"At the same time, we have a company here from the United Kingdom, GKN Aerospace, and others from the European Union—the EU is South Carolina's No. 1 source of foreign direct investment—but companies that had been looking at the state have been waiting to see how the Brexit ultimately works out."
But in his next breath, Robinson, who is as unflappable as he is an impeccable dresser, predicts the first quarter of 2019 "should be pretty good."
"With the conclusion of the midterms, and the progress of the Brexit discussions, a lot of what had inspired the concerns of the past year has been determined," he says.
"I think we've gotten through the period of evaluation and reevaluation, and we're now into a time of action," Robinson adds. "The thing about successful companies is, they adapt. They reshuffle the hand that's dealt them. They tinker and figure it out. That's the environment we're in now."
None of this is to imply economic development in Orangeburg is at a standstill as 2019 begins. Far from it. The county has absorbed more than 300,000 square feet of new investment annually in recent years, and a new initiative called One Orangeburg County is literally changing the face of the community, creating commercial gateways to attract travelers and shoppers from Charleston and the Lowcountry in the east and Columbia to the west.
"One of the things you do in economic development is you talk to people and constantly reassess what you're doing, and oftentimes the most enlightening conversations are those you have with people who don't choose your community," Robinson says. "One thing we learned this way was that people sometimes chose to invest elsewhere because we didn't have amenities they wanted. That they had to stay in Columbia or elsewhere when they came on a site visit, and so on. So we said, 'Okay, let's do something about that.'"
The solution, One Orangeburg County, established a so-called "gateway enhancement zone" based on a model traditionally used for industrial incentives.
The county selected two exits, Exit 145 on Interstate 26 and Exit 98 on Interstate 95, and committed to preparing them to be stylish commercial zones, complete with decorative signage, underground utility lines, and the like.
"Then we say, 'Okay, anybody who invests more than $6 million at one time and creates a certain number of full-time jobs will get 35 percent off their property tax bill for a period of 10 years," Robinson says.
Already, three new hotels are under construction, and the expectation is that they will serve as anchors for the development of restaurants, dry cleaners, and other commercial amenities.
The current program runs through 2020, at which time the Orangeburg County Council will decide whether to renew it or not.
Robinson is quick to credit a number of partners as responsible for the success of the initiative, including the county, the City of Orangeburg, the local education community, and the utilities serving the area. All, he says, are partners in a series of task forces that have broken down enhancing the future of Orangeburg into four "bite-sized" pieces.
"We need housing and we have a task force looking at how we can incentivize the commercial housing folks to come here. Another task force is focused on the gateway enhancement project. Then there's a task force looking at education, what we need to fix and what we need to support to make our graduates more attractive to prospective employers, and finally, the last task force is marketing,” he says.
Robinson says in light of all this activity and collaboration, he's bullish on 2019.
"I think the first half of 2019, especially, is going to be very exciting, with the longer-term projects we talked about earlier coming to fruition, and with a lot of new activity coming on line," he says. "For instance, look at what's happening in shopping, with people placing orders for groceries on their smartphones and then going to pick them up.
"I think what we're witnessing is a dramatic shift in how distribution is done, and this is going to lead to a proliferation of new fulfillment centers that are a perfect fit for us ... and that’s just one example of what's exciting in the year ahead for Orangeburg.
"The other thing is a growing sense that Orangeburg is now a much bigger part of what people used to think of as the economic development story of the ‘three-county region’ of Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties,” Robinson says. “I think more and more what's happening there is becoming a ‘quad-county story,’ and we're right in the thick of it.”