Step into the Oconee Economic Alliance office in Seneca, and you’re immediately greeted with Southern hospitality and a Made in Oconee product.
“This is bottled in Oconee, near Salem,” said OEA Executive Director Richard Blackwell, presenting a bottle of Crystal Geyser water. “Crystal Geyser is a Japanese company headquartered in California. This comes straight from the source; they pull a million gallons a day out of the aquifer, basically a straw in the side of a Blue Ridge mountain.”
It’s a fitting introduction to the state’s westernmost county, whose name is Cherokee for “land beside the water.”
With one-third of the county’s land in the Sumter National Forest, more than 600 miles of shoreline, and its Jocassee Gorges named one of National Geographic’s “50 Destinations of a Lifetime,” Oconee County is a prime destination for tourists and retirees alike.
It’s also a thriving center for manufacturing, with the county of 76,000 boasting 60 industries, Blackwell said. “About 35,000 are employed, and out of that, the largest percentage of jobs is in manufacturing.”
The Oconee Economic Alliance is behind the county’s efforts to improve the quality of life for the county’s citizens and build a diversified and sustainable economy.
That means recruiting new companies, maintaining relationships with existing industries and ensuring their needs are met – the catalyst for a number of workforce development programs.
From 2012-2017, Oconee County has won 28 economic development projects resulting in $300 million in capital investment and creation of 1,273 new jobs. The county’s unemployment rate has dropped 1.3% since last year, down to around a near record low of 4%.
With a population of 630,000 residing in a 30-mile radius of Seneca, Oconee County’s industries also provide opportunities for neighboring counties – Anderson and Pickens in the state, five counties in Georgia and three counties in North Carolina.
Oconee County’s economic background and ‘Made in Oconee’
The county’s economy is like a three-legged stool, standing on manufacturing, tourism and agribusiness.
In farming, Oconee County leads the state for broiler production, supplying Wild Wing Café locations with locally-sourced chicken, and is top five for cattle production.
Located near the county’s western edge in Long Creek, with a stunning view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Chattooga Belle Farm is a strong example of how agriculture ties into both the tourism and production sectors. The working farm boasts an events space, a distillery with recently trademarked “MuscaShine,” in addition to whiskey and brandy flavors to go with a café for visitors to enjoy views of all three states.
That’s only one of the many businesses that enhance the community, Blackwell said.
“We grew up in automotive around supplying Ford, Toyota, Dodge, and the other Japanese OEMs,” he said. “So if you start peeling it down one more layer, within the automotive parts supplier base, we excel in machining and plastics.”
The county is proud to have its first BMW supplier, Baxter Enterprises Hi-Tech Mold & Engineering, which located in 2016 and is still ramping up its business activities. But Blackwell also champions the area’s variety of industries.
Raising the visibility of the manufacturing industry, the companies present in Oconee County, and their associated career opportunities, is a core driver for the OEA – propelling the comprehensive Made in Oconee campaign, which includes videos, online company and product profiles, promotional materials and more to familiarize students and residents with companies and their products.
A bookcase filled with Oconee County products stands in the entrance to the OEA office, and Blackwell proudly displays each item.
Parkway Products Inc. makes the window switches to a Ford F-150 and the windshield wiper cases for a Nissan Altima. U.S. Engine Valve employs over 300 and produces engine valves used in Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Subaru models.
Have a smart meter on your home that measures electricity consumption? Itron Inc. in West Union has over 700 employees and produces the electrical measuring and control devices such as smart meters. They’ve been in Oconee County for 55 years.
Sandvik, a Swedish company in Westminster that employs over 300, makes carbide cutting tools used in the tooling, mining and construction industries.
Have an Interstate battery in your vehicle? Johnson Controls produces battery cases, which are shipped to Florence, where the battery components are added to complete the product and end up on your local store shelf.
Additionally, the county’s top employer is Duke Energy, with more than 3,000 employed at its nuclear station along Lake Keowee. Providing enough power for 1.9 million homes, it’s the third-largest producer of electrical energy in the United States, and one of only three 3-unit plants.
Nurturing Oconee County’s workforce
One of the greatest challenges to Blackwell’s work is the outdated perception of manufacturing jobs, which lends itself to a manufacturing skills gap experienced nationwide as seasoned production workers reach retirement age.
“We don’t have a jobs issue, we’ve got a skills issue. There are plenty of jobs here, but what we need are those people that are unemployed, underemployed, whatever their status in life is, we need them to have the right skills for today’s jobs,” Blackwell said. “I need employees not only on day one, but on day 25 of the 25th year of operations.”
That’s led the OEA to engage with the School District of Oconee County, collaborating to connect K-12 students with the community’s industries.
In August 2016, the School District of Oconee County and the Oconee Economic Alliance launched the NOW Program, Nurturing Oconee’s Workforce, a two-year program beginning with 30 juniors – 10 from each high school in the county – to attend off-campus meetings, where they’re given exposure to industries and opportunities to network with Oconee County’s top manufacturing leaders.
Additionally, in the Oconee Industry and Technology Park, 1.1 million cubic yards of dirt are being moved to make way for the Center for Workforce Development, slated to open in 2018.
“There's nothing like it in the state of South Carolina,” said Blackwell.
The center includes a new Tri-County Technical College Center for Manufacturing Excellence and the Hamilton Career Center, a cooperative partnership between Tri-County Tech and the School District of Oconee County. The vocational training center will provide manufacturing-aligned curriculum beginning with juniors in high school.
“As a junior, you can start taking classes here, you can walk down the street, take college credit classes at Tri-County Tech,” Blackwell said. “And all of this is inside the industrial park, so as we talk about youth apprenticeships, co-ops, internships, there's a perfect example in Baxter, which is sitting right there and wants to tap into this.”
While downtown development and revitalization are typically overseen by city leadership, Oconee County leaders have adopted an alternative model in Destination: Oconee, a multifaceted program aimed at community enhancements and marketing to make the area one of the leading tourist destinations in South Carolina.
Several years of planning with stakeholders went into the plan, “Destination Oconee: Realizing the Future of Oconee County,” which is now visible through façade improvements, gateway signage projects and marketing materials that build on a nostalgic, outdoorsy sentiment.
“We want to encourage growth but maintain the lifestyle that is unique to Oconee County with lakes, the rivers and outdoor recreation,” he adds.
Small Business Development
In addition to its major industrial focus, the OEA recognizes the value of small business growth in enriching Oconee County and its cities and towns of Seneca, Walhalla, Westminster, Salem and West Union. Toward that end, it established the Tri-County Entrepreneurial Development Corp., which operates a business incubator.
The Oconee Business Center supports businesses during start-up and early growth phases with affordable office space and amenities and access to SCORE mentoring services.
Currently, seven businesses occupy the Oconee Business Center, and it has touched nearly 1,000 prospective entrepreneurs.
Building a Bright Future
Beyond these programs, Blackwell and his team are also tasked with preparing industrial properties so the county can continue to grow and diversify.
It’s taken smart partnerships, financial investment and diligent use of resources, such as timbering land within one industrial park to fund road construction in another park.
The OEA actively markets three business parks for future companies – Golden Corner Commerce Park, with 300 acres off Interstate 85; Seneca Rail Park, a public-public partnership between the county and the city of Seneca, with rail service and 82 buildable acres; and Oconee Industry and Technology Park, with 150 buildable acres remaining and home to the future Center for Workforce Development.
“At the end of the day, we are Oconee County,” Blackwell reflects. “We are trying to punch above our weight class, but we fight for everything that we get. We’ve hit 28 singles in my time here, we haven’t hit a home run – and honestly, I like that, because the whole goal of the alliance is to diversify our local economy.”
Danielle Besser is the public relations coordinator for Upstate SC Alliance.