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Volvo group hears stories of BMW, Michelin arrivals

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By Bill Poovey
Published Feb. 15, 2016

BMW Manufacturing Co. “saved the Upstate and changed us forever,” Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt said as he recalled the German automaker picking Greer in 1992.

Britt joined Greer Mayor Rick Danner and S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt in assuring a group of Berkeley County officials that Volvo will bring major economic and other community benefits but will need a community support team. Volvo is building the $500 million plant on 1,600 acres of a 7,000-acre site about 30 miles from the Port of Charleston.

Not a place that welcomed other folks in

According to Britt, BMW and Michelin’s welcome in the community of peach orchards and textile mills included local government battles over incentives and community distrust of foreigners.

Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt (standing from right) and S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt speak to a group of Berkeley County officials and economic development planners about BMW’s startup and growth and the expected impact of Volvo. The session was arranged by the S.C. Department of Commerce. (Photo by Bill Poovey)Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt (standing from right) and S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt speak to a group of Berkeley County officials and economic development planners about BMW’s startup and growth and the expected impact of Volvo. The session was arranged by the S.C. Department of Commerce. (Photo by Bill Poovey)

“As soon as we walked in, I heard a couple of guys cussing. They said a couple of words that weren’t very nice. Why are they so upset? In the middle of the room, there was the Michelin man. I said why are they so upset about that?”

— David Britt
Spartanburg County Council

“We had lost 25,000 jobs in that period of the textile companies leaving, and you would think with BMW looking to come here that everybody in the community would be jumping up, clapping. ‘What can we do to help? We are on the team.’ It wasn’t that way,” Britt said. “We had people get a little greedy … school districts.”

He said the “superintendent in the school district where BMW is, he fought us nonstop.”

“We had seven council members, and not all of them could agree that this was going to be a great thing,” Britt said. “We had some fight about incentives. ‘How could you give all this money up?’ And we had battles within the council. We had certain council members who talked about how much money we were going to bring in. Fortunately, we had a majority during that period of negotiating that looked beyond that.”

Britt, who was elected to a school board in 1987 and the council in 1991, said there was sentiment in Spartanburg that, even after decades of losing textile jobs, some “didn’t want a lot of competing industry to come in and take their employees and raise the wage rates ... Spartanburg wasn’t known as a place that welcomed other folks in. It just wasn’t.”

Britt recalled how then-Gov. Carroll Campbell in 1992, two years before BMW started production, visited Greer City Hall to oppose the city’s effort to annex the automaker’s site. He said the governor “showed up on the doorsteps and put a stop to it along with one of the Supreme Court judges put an injunction on it. And council united, and we fought it too. It was crazy.”

Britt also recalled what he heard at a 1977 announcement that Michelin was building a plant.

“As soon as we walked in I heard a couple of guys cussing. They said a couple of words that weren’t very nice. Why are they so upset? In the middle of the room, there was the Michelin man. I said why are they so upset about that? He said ‘you don’t understand’ ... he said ‘this is going to upset the apple cart ... There are really five main textile companies in Spartanburg County that control everything.’ They really did. He said Michelin’s arrival is ‘going to change Spartanburg, wage rates and also the way people move about.’”

Britt recalled that during the recruitment of BMW he went in a restaurant and a business friend “grabbed me by my tie and pulled me over and said, ‘Don’t bring those Germans to Spartanburg.’ He said, ‘It will change Spartanburg forever.’” Britt told the group that recollection reminded him of what happened in Union County when then-state Sen. John D. Long III stopped plans to build Interstate 26 in the county.

“Don’t want no damn interstate in my county,” Hitt interjected, mimicking Long.

“It was going to go right though Union County,” Britt said, adding that Long “stopped that interstate from going through — Union was a big textile county too — right through Union. That’s not what you want to happen. That’s what Spartanburg would look like if we hadn’t had BMW and some foresight. Don’t listen to some of those people and it will change. If you do some good planning and work together as a team, you’ll benefit like Greer and Spartanburg.”

Further describing Spartanburg County’s textile community culture, Britt said the county once had 88 school districts, each affiliated with a mill. He said Spartanburg floundered in the 1980s from the loss of textile jobs.

He said county officials “were struggling and scrambling to do something. Gov. Campbell and BMW saved Spartanburg forever. I have said it every time I do an interview, BMW flat out saved Spartanburg County and the Upstate of South Carolina, and maybe South Carolina as a whole.”

Britt said there has since been a “real change in attitudes” on Spartanburg County Council since BMW’s first four years, when there was squabbling about incentives and various community sectors looking for ways to hit up the new company financially. He said the economic development mindset doesn’t involve the amount of taxes to be generated.

“We don’t think about the taxes,” he said.

Britt said “there are 46,000 jobs in 38 S.C. counties because of BMW.” He said the company “always under-promises and over-delivers, in far more than their investment. Just their impact, their prestige, the teamwork that they can push on to the county and you can benefit from is unheard of.”

Britt said the “benefit that is going to come to Berkeley County is just like BMW.” Initially, he said, BMW was going to invest between $200 million and $400 million. Now, BMW Manufacturing has invested $7 billion and grown from a projection of 2,000 jobs in the first 10 years to 8,000 employees. Volvo said it has 2,000 initial job openings and will employ up to 4,000 over time in Berkeley County.

Britt introduced Spartanburg County administrators and planners at the meeting and said the county’s economic development efforts led to expanding S.C. 290 from a country road to a multilane highway. He said the area became a hotbed of development for BMW suppliers and others, such as Tokyo-based Toray Industries Inc.’s $1 billion carbon-fiber composites plant announced in 2014.

BMW’s impact on Greer, Spartanburg County and S.C.

Danner discussed a wide ranging report on the city’s strong economic growth, including population and per capita income, since the BMW Manufacturing Co. plant started production in 1994.

“Greer was stagnant to say the least,” Danner said. He said the city’s growth “mirrors in a lot of different ways the growth of the plant.” He said the city’s population grew 68% between 2000 and 2015, although many BMW employees commute from other communities.

“We’ve grown from 1990 roughly 10,000 people to 2015 roughly 30,000 citizens,” Danner said. “We anticipate that number will be somewhere in the 35,000 to 37,000 range by 2020, and given our housing starts, that’s not unbelievable.”

Danner said BMW’s community impact is more than economic growth and jobs.

“It is not just about numbers and production. It’s not just about employees. It is about how they have integrated themselves into the community,” Danner said. He said the presence of the plant has “forced in some regards other manufacturers to sort of get on board with some of our efforts. If I bring BMW to the table, well you better believe that Mitsubishi is going to be there, and Honeywell is going to be there, and some of the other manufacturing plants are going to be there. Because it is rare company to be in, and they want to be a part of it.”

Danner said a BMW employee has served as chairman of the city’s chamber of commerce and others participated in developing a master plan. He added that employees volunteer for various projects and events in and around Greer.

According to Danner, Upstate communities have received $36 million in corporate gifts from BMW for educational institutions, cultural arts organizations, social and community involvement initiatives.

“Their Pro-Am Golf Tournament has generated over $11 million, which has all been plowed back into the community,” Danner said. “That is something that is hard to quantify, but it gives you some idea of the kind of impact they can have on a community.”

Greer has “become something of a tourist destination now because of the Zentrum (BMW museum) and the opportunities that are presented at the (performance) driving facility,” Danner said.

Hitt, who helped recruit BMW to South Carolina and later worked as the plant’s corporate affairs manager, said the business recruiting and assisting those that choose the state have become much more sophisticated since BMW and “South Carolina has learned. Our training mechanisms have learned.” He said 60,000 people applied for jobs at BMW.

“We had to build a whole center in Spartanburg County just to do induction of people. We had to have a run through, a physical test to see if they could even work in a plant. We had people who were shoe clerks and other things apply,” Hitt said.

Recalling his time working at BMW, Hitt told the visitors that “some of you will have to help Volvo because they just won’t know. They will be focused on cars, not on local issues and other things like that.”

What is next for Volvo and Berkeley County?

Berkeley County Supervisor and County Council Chairman Bill Peagler said about 5,000 acres will be “provided for suppliers.” He said the automaker has been offered “some incentives to bring their suppliers with them. We want to get out of the real estate business as quickly as possible.” Peagler said the community support team for Volvo is “looking at things like how we can get more people qualified to do the jobs.” He said there are ongoing discussions with Trident Tech and Berkeley County school leaders.

Peagler said following the group’s tour of the BMW plant that seeing the production process was educational and “what it told me was we need to come back and plan for those suppliers a little quicker than we anticipated.”

“I know now if I have an issue I can call someone there who has gone through the same experience I am going through now,” Peagler said of his takeaway from the pre-tour program arranged by the S.C. Department of Commerce.

Peagler said the first permit has been issued for construction of the Volvo paint shop and “we are getting ready to build roads and infrastructure.”

In September, Volvo announced the S60 sedan would be built exclusively in South Carolina. The first South Carolina-built Volvos are expected to be assembled in late 2018 and exported through the Port of Charleston.

Reach Bill Poovey at 864-235-5677, ext. 104.

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