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Columbia Business Monthly

Calhoun County: Harvesting Big Deals

Oct 02, 2017 10:46AM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

When you think about Calhoun County, think food. Not because the hyper-rural Midlands county is some foodie paradise of fine-dining establishments serving up metro-cultural plates. Actual food comes from somewhere, right? Plenty of that somewhere happens to be Calhoun County.

Consider this: Of the county’s 392 square miles, nearly half that—almost 120,000 acres—is farmland, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from 2012, the latest figures available.

Now, consider: While all that real estate harvested $79 million in 2012, agriculture accounted for just 4.9 percent of all industry in the county. Manufacturing, retail trade, construction, and transportation warehousing comprise about 40 percent of the rest.

Much of that relates to food.

Just last August, Bob Dernbach scored Otis Spunkmeyer as a client for Southeast Frozen Foods, which in 2016 invested $6 million to expand its Calhoun operations. The Florida-based company is one of the Southeast’s largest cold-storage operators and frozen- and refrigerated-food products distributors—a tasty match with Otis Spunkmeyer, which makes cookies, cakes, muffins, and other treats.

“That’ll really bring in some more traffic for us,” says Dernbach, Southeast Frozen Foods’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Calhoun County’s been our No. 2 facility for some time, but Otis Spunkmeyer will take us to the No. 1 position in our company in all six of our distribution centers.”

Southeast Frozen Foods’s third expansion in the last eight years brings to more than $20 million the cumulative total in its capital investments there, adding more than 100 jobs.

At its 17-acre, 200,000-square-foot plant in Gaston, state-of-the-art “blast technology” can freeze 40-pound cases of chicken in 36 hours, Dernbach says, adding, “Our blast times will compete with anybody in the market.”

The company also handles products from the likes of Tyson, General Mills, Nestlé, and Toffuti, to name a few.

Now wash all that down with the product of another Calhoun star: Starbucks.

In 2009, the Seattle-based java behemoth invested $70 million in a LEED-certified plant just off I-26 in Sandy Run. Some 100 employees now roast 1.5 million pounds of beans every week at the 117,000-square-foot plant, just one of five such Starbucks plants in the world, one of only four in the U.S.

Calhoun County beat out three dozen locations for the grande coup.

“Starbucks looked at some 36 other sites,” says Pat Black Jr., chairman of the Calhoun County Economic Development Commission. “We

didn’t worry about the other 35 sites.”

While Starbucks didn’t respond to requests for comment about it selected Calhoun County, Black wasn’t shy about how much cream the investment put in the economic-development sugar.

“It never hurts to have one of the most recognized brands in the country,” he says. “We have an excellent relationship with Starbucks and feel like they have one with us and, hopefully, that will mean even bigger and better things to come.”

Those bigger, better things have already percolated. Black lists these major investments in the county within the last two years, not including the Southeast Frozen Foods deal:

DAK Americas: $50 million expansion. In 2011, the Charlotte-based, wholly owned subsidiary of a Mexico conglomerate completed a $600 million purchase of a Calhoun County plant to make plastics commonly used in, yes, food, beverage, and other packaging.

Hickory Springs Bottling Co.: $16 million expansion.

Thermo King: $4.1 million facility.

Wire Mesh Corp.: $13 million announcement.

Fitts Sign Co.: $4.2 million facility.

Cypress Creek Renewables: $50 million investment for solar farms.

For dessert, one of the largest investments comes from Devro, which opened a $74 operation in 2016. The multinational company based in the U.K. manufactures—you guessed it—food-related products: edible meat casings (think sausage).

Now we’re back to agriculture.

“Preliminary indications are for excellent crops in corn, cotton, and peanuts this year, although the weather is always a factor in the final outcome,” Black says. “We, perhaps too often, take the agricultural sector of our economy for granted because we have the most abundant, most productive, and safest food supply of any nation in the world.”

But Black takes neither ag nor any other industry for granted, and, to Dernbach, the county reaps what it sows.

“Pat Black has been our emissary for many, many years, and every time we’ve had an expansion, every time we’ve had a groundbreaking, everybody’s come in for that,” Dernbach says, naming county and state leaders. “I have a lot of respect and admiration for all the folks in Calhoun County and all the Columbia government agencies that have helped support us.”