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Columbia Business Monthly

Lexington County: Economy Diverse and Growing

Oct 02, 2017 10:51AM ● By Makayla Gay

By Richard Breen

In some ways, describing the economy in Lexington County is akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

If you only drove the long procession of shopping centers and subdivisions along U.S. highways 1 and 378, you might define the county as a bedroom community providing white-collar workers to adjacent Richland County.

If you only sped down interstates 20, 26 and 77 and saw the factories and distribution centers dotting the landscape, you might say the county was all about manufacturing.

If you only wandered the rural backroads, passing green fields and poultry farms, you might conclude the Lexington economy was based on agriculture.

“You want to be diversified, and Lexington County has that,” says Otis Rawl, president and chief executive of the Greater Lexington Chamber and Visitor Center.

The county is growing in both people and businesses. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau pegged its population at 286,196, up 9.1 percent from 2010. Sixty-six percent of those folks were in the labor force, the second highest rate in South Carolina behind York County.

“We have a very rapidly growing labor force,” says Mike Eades, the county’s economic development director. “That’s a crucial selling point in a tight labor market.”

Indeed, unemployment has fallen throughout South Carolina, and Lexington County traditionally has one of the state’s lowest jobless rates. Its July rate of 3.6 percent was behind only Charleston County.

“In recent years, we’ve seen Lexington County growing at a faster rate than the state average,” says Dr. Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. “We see many people living in Lexington County and working in Richland County.”

Eades estimates 54,000 commuters leave the county each day for work elsewhere. Having all those paychecks connected to Lexington County has encouraged homebuilders.

“You can’t buy a house if you don’t have a job,” Von Nessen says. “Construction’s doing especially well in Lexington, and retail as well.”

Eades, meanwhile, hopes to encourage job creation that will keep residents closer to home.

“We’ve got 25-30 active projects that we’re courting, of all sizes,” he says.

Eades estimates that for the fiscal year ending in June, county economic developers struck deals that would create $120 million in capital investment and 150 jobs. In July, the S.C. Department of Commerce announced Electro-Spec Inc. would be establishing a new operation in Lexington County. The company pledged $3.1 million in capital investment and 53 new jobs.

“South Carolina is a prime area to expand because of the multitude of entities that need our services,” says Jeff Smith, president of the specialty plating company. He quickly lists Bosch, BMW, Boeing and Mercedes as either current or potential customers.

With Lexington County sitting between South Carolina manufacturing centers in Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston, as well as between Charlotte and Atlanta, “you couldn’t pick a more perfect spot,” Smith says.

Michelin might agree. The French company has been manufacturing tires in Lexington since 1981 and currently employs 2,385 workers across two plants.

“About 80 percent of the large Earthmover tires manufactured at our Lexington site are exported through the Port of Charleston,” says Lisa Hayes, Lexington manufacturing site director. “Our location in Lexington is a key component of our strategy in North America.”

Approximately three miles from the Michelin facilities, Electro-Spec is renovating a 10,000-square-foot facility, which Smith says will get his company up and running faster and cheaper than if they’d had to build from scratch. Available buildings are coveted in economic development.

“About 75 percent of the prospects we deal with initially are looking for buildings,” Eades says.

The county has 1,000 available acres across three county-maintained business parks.

“Just having raw land is nice, but to be competitive, you’ve got to go another couple of steps,” Eades says. “Our thought process down the road is to build some spec buildings.”

Smith says that near Electro-Spec’s home in Franklin, Indiana, economic developers construct a spec building (a basic structure than can be upfit to many industrial uses) every year.

“As soon as they get it completed, they’ve sold it,” he says.

Private developer Miller Valentine Group has begun a spec building in a Lexington County industrial park near the intersection of interstates 26 and 77. The 200,000-square-foot facility is geared toward a logistics user.

“We’ve got all the assets here, we just don’t have a whole lot of product,” Rawl says. “The communities that get it right are going to be the ones that are going to be successful.”

Meanwhile, the county continues to play a major role in agriculture. A 2012 federal census counted 1,011 farms producing $164.6 million in products, the second highest total value among South Carolina counties.