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Richland County looks to ignite manufacturing interest

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By Christina Lee Knauss 

The sprawling new Mark Anthony Brewing facility off Shop Road in Columbia represents what area leaders would like to see more of in Richland County: an influx of major manufacturers that will help the area catch up with other regions in the state that have become major manufacturing hubs.  

The Mark Anthony project, located on 200 acres in the Pineview Industrial Park, is the second-largest development deal ever for Richland County, bringing a $400 million investment to the area and 300 jobs. Chicago-based Mark Anthony’s new facility will help the company respond to an exploding national market for its hard seltzer products. The Shop Road location will brew White Claw, Mark’s Hard Lemonade and Cayman Jack cocktails. 

Mark Anthony came to the area as a result of aggressive promotion from both Richland County and the city of Columbia, as well as buy-in from local utilities such as Dominion Energy and the city’s water utility, which offered bulk water and sewer rates that offer per-gallon discounts for large users. Mark Anthony, which will need 3 million gallons a day for its operations, will be the city’s largest water consumer.  

Area economic development leaders say more of the same will be needed to continue to attract large manufacturing projects to an area that in the past 30 years has seen other large manufacturers like Michelin, BMW, Boeing and Volvo look to the Upstate and the Charleston area to locate new facilities. 

In seeking new manufacturers, Richland County is hoping for a larger piece of the manufacturing pie which already directly or indirectly employs more than 700,000 South Carolinians at 6,000 facilities statewide, according to statistics compiled by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.  

In Richland County, manufacturing employs more than 8,000 residents.  

Ryan Coleman, director of Columbia Economic Development, said 2020 was a banner year for manufacturing in the city with Mark Anthony’s announcement. The county received a record $638 million in new capital investment in 2020 and added a total of 1,377 jobs. 

Other 2020 needle-movers included Xplor Boatworks’ $3.4 million manufacturing facility, which created 34 jobs, and a $2.3 million expansion by technology company Capgemini of its BullStreet District operations that added 150 jobs. 

The challenge now, Coleman said, is attracting more companies to the area at a time when the city has a shortage of available facilities for them to move into.   

Coleman said many manufacturers are looking for existing facilities that are “move-in ready” because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused supply chain issues that in turn are driving up the costs of construction supplies as well as putting a premium on available industrial real estate.  

“Some of the industrial market reports right now show that Columbia’s industrial occupancy is at about 96%, and that’s a downside because there’s a lot of demand out there and a lot of our product is leased up right now,” Coleman said. “The issue right now is to attract more manufacturers like Mark Anthony who want to build new facilities from scratch.”  

One answer to the problem is to attract more attention to the area’s industrial parks like Pineview, also home to the China Jushi fiberglass facility which opened in 2016. Coleman said there is also plenty of acreage available in northeast Richland County near Blythewood, where the $26.2 million, 1,348-acre Blythewood Industrial Park is now open for business.  

Jeff Ruble, director of economic development for Richland County, said the formula that worked to bring Mark Anthony to Columbia will be key in attracting future manufacturers’ interest.  

Ruble recalled that when he first got into economic development in the early 1090s, many prospective manufacturers avoided the Richland County area because of a strong union presence at the Mack truck plant that was formerly located in Winnsboro in nearby Fairfield County.  

“Consultants would kind of draw a circle around the whole area and say ‘We’re not going anywhere near there,’ and Richland County fell behind because of that at no fault of its own,” Ruble said.  

“I think we’re now catching up and we’re poised for steady, prolific growth in manufacturing growth over the next decade.”  

Ruble said the industrial parks as well as the area’s utility system offer automatic incentives for companies seeking available real estate as well as resources to meet their needs.  

He said another asset that Richland County offers manufacturers is “an abundance of talent,” including more than 50,000 college students in the immediate area as well as personnel emerging from service at Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base in nearby Sumter.  

“You’re looking at between 60 to 80 transitions from the military to the civilian work force a month. That kind of talent is hard to replicate,” Ruble said. “All in all, we’ve got a lot of good, smart young people who are ready to work and that number is growing.” 

One thing that has kept some manufacturers away from the area in the past is the city of Columbia and Richland County’s higher taxes compared to other locations such as nearby Lexington County, as well as Greenville and Charleston. The higher tax rate is due in large part to the looming presence of two of its largest, tax-exempt employers — state government and the University of South Carolina.   

The county and city are finding ways around that, however, with incentive programs designed to attract large corporate investments.  

In 2019, the city of Columbia and Richland County teamed up on an inventive program that offers a 50% tax reduction to businesses and developers on commercial projects worth more than $30 million.  

Developers have until 2022 to apply for the tax incentive.   

Ruble noted that state tax credits and infrastructure grants helped lure Mark Anthony, as well as a $1.5 million grant from Richland County. 

While Mark Anthony is by far the largest new project to impact Richland County in the past five years, other area manufacturers are also expanding their facilities and operations.  

REI Automation recently cut the ribbon on a new headquarters building on Veterans Road in Columbia.  

REI designs and builds assembly lines and robotics for manufacturers around the U.S. and worldwide, primarily serving customers in the medical, nuclear, consumer goods, electronics and automotive industries. 

“We’ve experienced pretty tremendous growth over the past five years and we were out of room for our engineers and technicians,” said REI Automation CEO Grant Phillips. “The new headquarters doubles the amount of space for engineering and design groups, and also gives us new room for our research and development for new technologies.” 

Trane, which makes HVAC equipment at its facility off Interstate 77 in northeast Richland County, has increased its workforce from 350 employees to more than 1,300. 

Leaders in area industries and the community agree that one of the biggest challenges facing manufacturing is a hiring crunch, partially spurred by the pandemic and also by the difficulties of getting many younger workers to consider a career in manufacturing.   

Part of it is an image problem, industry insiders say.  

Many prospective employees grow up with older images of dirty, dangerous factories — an image not reflected in the high-tech, cleaner state-of-the-art facilities being built now, or in the salaries offered by manufacturing careers.  

Chrys Kefalas, vice president of brand strategy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said hiring is a concern for the manufacturing sector nationwide. He cited statistics which show 900,000 open manufacturing jobs in the U.S. as of October – an industry record – and anticipated needs for 4 million more between now and 2030.  

As a result, manufacturers in Richland County are doing whatever it takes to reach out to prospective new hires, relying on everything from social media campaigns and job fairs to online efforts such as the SC Future Makers ( project run by the South Carolina Manufacturers Association, which seeks to partner manufacturers and schools.  

The initiative offers a one-stop online portal where companies can post information about their industry and how to apply for career opportunities.  

REI currently employs about 80 people at the Veterans Road facility and will be hiring employees throughout the next year, Phillips said. He said the company maintains strong relationships with the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and Midlands Technical College to attract graduates to REI, and also has been expanding its outreach in the general job market.  

The Trane plant is employing a multi-prong plan to attract new talent, according to Arthur Dunn, human resources leader at the plant. He said Trane is doing everything from getting the company’s name out in the community through outreach programs to direct involvement in area schools.  

Trane, for instance, has been a big donor to the National Society of Black Engineers’ chapter at Blythewood’s Westwood High School. The company is also using the latest technology to enable prospective employees to apply for positions by scanning a special QR code with their smartphones. 

“We’re making sure that people understand there are a lot of opportunities here at Trane, whether it’s in production, engineering, safety and health. There are so many places to go within the company,” Dunn said. “Manufacturing is not what it used to be. We have a state-of-the art building and a clean working environment and it’s a fun place to come to work. It’s all about building a strong pipeline for people to come here to grow and develop.”   

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