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Columbia Business Monthly

Orangeburg County: Sun-Kissed Appeal

Oct 02, 2017 10:53AM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Orangeburg’s been looking to the skies lately when it comes to its bright and sunny economic-development climate. From a South Carolina-grown solar farm to a global aerospace company, investments appear to be shining on the Midlands county.

“In the last 24 months, we’ve had close to a million square feet of new construction,” says Gregg Robinson, who became Orangeburg County Development Commission’s executive director two years ago. “It’s pretty impressive. It’s a record year for us, and we have in the pipeline well over a billion dollars in project activity.”

What in the world—in South Carolina—is going on in the county that prides itself as home to the state’s so-called Global Logistics Triangle: I-95, U.S. 301, and I-26?

To name just one, Southern Current LLC, a Charleston-based solar-energy company, announced a $10 million investment in May with the development of a six-megawatt solar farm on more than 50 acres in Orangeburg’s eponymous county seat.

“The process went very smoothly,” Paul Fleury, the company’s chief development officer, says of the legal, tax-incentive, and pre-construction work toward a farm whose harvest, when it goes online later this year, will power hundreds of thousands of homes.

“Generally, Orangeburg has opened their arms to all kinds of economic development, even so much more so than Lexington County, which has realized that they’ve lost out on some deals because Orangeburg has become more progressive on bringing more investment there,” Fleury says.

Of the multimillion-dollar Orangeburg investment, Southern Current, which also is developing 100 projects throughout South Carolina, 15 percent stays in the county, Fleury says. During the height of two-month construction, as many as 80 people are onsite, pumping cash into hotels, gas stations, eating establishments, and the like. After that, while solar farms are fairly low maintenance, upkeep keeps local contractors employed.

Southern Current marks just some of the $150 million raining on in the last five years. More than 170 expansions or new industry sites have generated $625 million in investments and nearly 3,400 jobs, the county says.

The two largest sectors, according to the state Department of Employment and Workforce, are manufacturing and retail trade. In 2015’s first quarter, the latest figures available, 68 manufacturers employed nearly 6,000 people, while retail trade’s 372 businesses employed 4,102.

That’s despite a one-percentage-point drop in Orangeburg’s population from 2014 to 2015, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The BEA also reports the county’s per capita income jumped a healthy four percent during that same period, with a 14-percentage-point rise from 2010 to 2015.

That’s thanks in part to the wealth of major employers, including Koyo Corp., the ball-bearing maker with 530 employees; Sara Lee Bakery, with 536; North American Container Corp., with 400; and Zeus Industrial Products, whose 450 employees make Teflon tubing, according to the county.

Some of those are among 13 international firms in Orangeburg, such as:

Husqvarna: The Sweden-based outdoor power-equipment company’s Orangeburg factory manufactures riding mowers, garden tractors, and zero-turn mowers—the Husqvarna Group’s largest campus globally. It’s also the county’s largest employer, with 2,000 people. In November 2016, Husqvarna opened a $31 million, 513,000-square-foot distribution facility, bringing the overall manufacturing footprint in Orangeburg to nearly two million square feet.

GKN: The British aerospace giant announced a $20 million investment in June 2015. Its 75 employees produce critical engine housings for Boeing’s 737 MAX and 777X, the Seattle manufacturer’s latest, hot-demand aircraft. “For us, it’s been like riding a rocket,” GKN’s Orangeburg site manager Todd Sharpley says of the explosive growth. “I see Orangeburg as a very ripe environment, where, for example, on infrastructure, we had great support from the county.”

That’s exactly what the OCDC’s Robinson says he’s shooting for.

Robinson claims more certified sites “than anybody else in South Carolina,” with nine industrial parks and 3,000 shovel-ready acres. Plus, he adds, “When we see almost a million square feet of new construction, we’re finally getting the attention for our global footprint.

“I’m still not beating Greenville and I’m still not beating Charleston, but we’re a third the size, as far as population,” he says. “If we get ready and we prepare ourselves—just like Greer and Greenville saw the influx of BMW and the supplier network—we’ll answer the call of business. Or they’ll step over us and go somewhere else.

“Orangeburg is location meets infrastructure meets opportunity,” he says. “It’s having a vision for a manufacturing renaissance, and now that we’ve done that, we’re starting to see some of the tip of the iceberg.”