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Columbia Business Monthly

The shuttering of VC Summer shook Fairfield, but the county is bouncing back thanks to manufacturing

By Cindy Landrum

Not long ago, things looked bleak for Fairfield County. When plans to build two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville were scrapped in 2017, it put thousands of people out of work and left the rural county of less than 23,000 people just north of Columbia reeling.

“It was a big blow. Some of our local vendors are just starting to recover from that,” says Ty Davenport, the county’s economic development director. 

But things are starting to look up.

China-based Healthcare Co., Ltd. is renovating the former Mack Truck facility in Winnsboro for a new memory-foam mattress manufacturing plant. The company, which was the first publicly traded memory-foam manufacturer in China and is now that country’s largest, will invest $45 million and create 250 jobs.

Element Electronics, the only television assembly plant in the U.S., announced in April that it had added 100 new jobs. The announcement came at the plant’s fifth anniversary celebration and just months after the company had said it would have to close because new tariffs on parts it imports from China would have made the cost of its TVs too high. The company, which received an exemption from the tariffs from the Trump administration, now is doing booming business.

And Fairfield County and the S.C. Department of Commerce officials are actively marketing the county’s I-77 International Megasite, a 1,500-acre tract of land designed for use by a single major manufacturer. The site’s master plan features more than 9 million square feet of space, a rail spur, an electrical substation, and a million-gallon water tank.

Davenport believes a major automotive company would be a natural fit and aerospace would work as well.

“If you look at Greenville-Spartanburg today and Greenville-Spartanburg 25 years ago, it’s totally different,” Davenport says of the Upstate before and after BMW opened its Spartanburg plant. “We’re hoping to do that here. It’s a huge opportunity for the county. It would be a game-changer for us and the whole Midlands region.”

Davenport says Fairfield County has an advantage over counties in South Carolina’s other urbanized areas that have been able to attract large manufacturers such as BMW, Boeing, and Keurig Green Mountain—mainly a big talented labor force with a track record in manufacturing.

“Realistically, the labor force in the Upstate is very good, but it’s full. It’s the same thing in the lower part of the state. Labor there is tight,” he says. “We don’t have a cluster like that driving our labor market.”

But the area has a large workforce that could fill those jobs and those at Tier 1 suppliers, he adds. There’s a civilian labor force of 550,000 people within a 45 minute drive time of the megasite and other workers would move into the area for the kind of jobs a major manufacturer would offer.

The workforce is younger than the national average. Fairfield County had the fourth-highest unemployment rates in the state in April at 4.5 percent.

Davenport says the county is working on the engineering and design for infrastructure to the I-77 International Megasite, which should be attractive to manufacturers with its access to the interstate, airports in Columbia and Charleston, and to the Port of Charleston.

“There are very few sites like this right now,” he notes.

But the megasite is not the only one. More than 600 acres of new industrial property is available in the Fairfield Commerce Center in Ridgeway. The property can accommodate companies that need anywhere from 50,000 square feet to 1.5 million square feet, Davenport says, adding that two prospects are looking at the site.

“The nuclear thing set us behind a good bit. We were planning on how to use the funds. We delayed some stuff that had we known, we probably would have made other decisions,” he says. “But we’re bouncing back. Things are getting better and better.”

In addition to trying to attract new jobs to the area, Fairfield County is also working on the community development side to create a more livable community, he said. “We want to promote growth of manufacturing, but at the same time, we want residential and commercial growth as well,” he said.