Racing Toward Growth
Darlington County, SC
South Carolina’s Darlington County is well-known for its NASCAR track, called the Darlington Raceway – but it has so much more going for it. Back in August of 2015, I spoke with Darlington County Economic Development Partnership Executive Director Frank Willis about the history of the area, how transportation plays a key role in its economic development, and plans to strengthen the manufacturing sector. Once again, we spoke with Frank and found out how plans have developed over the last four years.
Most of what has happened since we last spoke involves the expansion of the county’s existing industry. Some new industry has come into the county, but the bulk of that growth was seen within existing businesses.
In 2015, the Volvo plant and aerospace industries were getting underway in Charleston. The hope was for suppliers to locate and set up shop in Darlington County. There has not yet been any spin-off business from that, but there is still a chance in the future.
“Nucor steel just announced a $100 million expansion, and Sonoco also went through some growth in 2017 to 2018 to the tune of over $15 million. There are also a few other projects we are working on involving expansions of existing industries, so we are a hub of activity presently,” says Frank.
Charleston-based solar energy contractor Southern Current invested $340 million in the county last year. Another agreement with Southern Current was just signed for $150 million, which makes for a total of almost a half-billion dollars of capital investment in Darlington for solar initiatives. It will entail individual sites being built one phase at a time over several years.
To date, Southern Current has built six new solar farms. When these go into full operation, the farms will create a huge amount of available, affordable electric power. The investment by itself does not create new jobs, but it will be easier to attract future industry because the cost of electricity will be quite low.
“Through property taxes, the deal puts $1 million per year into the county coffers for thirty years. It requires no outlay by the county for any other kinds of expenses. They don’t use our roads, trash service, or water system. They pay a lot of property tax, and that puts a lot of money back into our economy,” says Frank.
The last few years have seen Darlington County spend much time and effort in establishing its infrastructure. Previously, there were no certified industrial sites or industrial parks, and now there are three.
“We were putting our infrastructure in place, and we didn’t spend any money on advertising or marketing from 2012 to 2015, because we didn’t possess any industrial parks. Over the last few years, we have created three new parks, all certified. The emphasis has changed from putting infrastructure in place to filling up these parks,” says Frank.
Darlington County is recruiting targeted industries in areas like metal fabricating, plastics, and food processing. Due to the proximity of interstates I-95 and I-20, the county is also pursuing warehousing and distribution companies.
One park is on I-20 in the western part of the county. The Florence-Darlington Technical College Park is on the edge of Florence, in the southern part of the county, while the Hartsville Industrial Park is adjacent to the town of Hartsville.
“The expectation is that these parks will not stretch our infrastructure right away. We are in talks with a couple of companies that we are actively trying to get into one of the parks… Our infrastructure will be able to handle that,” says Frank. A food processing company, for example, is interested in buying all 160 acres in one industrial park. If that is accomplished, the land inventory will need to be replaced, but the infrastructure would not be stretched too far and should suffice for the next few years.
The warehousing and distribution centers are made possible because of the access to transportation routes. The two interstates are a part of what prospective companies seek. All three of the industrial parks were deliberately built within a twenty-minute drive of an interstate for ease of transportation.
“These warehousing and distribution centers are target industries, so we are focusing a lot of activity on companies that do warehousing or are involved in the distribution business, but that crosses lines sometimes,” says Frank. For food processing companies, distribution is also a crucial aspect of that business.
This year should be the best year on record for the county in regard to capital investment. Almost all of that is derived from existing industry that will not take up any more infrastructure assets as these companies have their own facilities.
“Existing industry is the core of our success and growth, and we have several that continue to grow at a rate of ten percent to fifteen percent per year. Our existing industries are very important to us and lucrative,” says Frank.
He believes the county is attractive and in a good position for the future, with appealing parks, the interstate and transportation networks, and any infrastructure a company would desire for relocating or starting anew.
Darlington County’s website is an important part of its ongoing efforts to promote the county. It is assisted by the region’s economic development organization: The North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA). Its job is to go to trade shows and seek marketing opportunities to represent the area’s interests. NESA is going to Europe with a delegation this September to an aerospace exposition. The county works with NESA frequently, and the South Carolina Department of Commerce is also helping to spread the word about Darlington.
Darlington County is making a concerted effort to listen to local industry and find out what companies need and want. “In that way, manufacturing companies and businesses can meet on their own to discuss what is needed. Perhaps instead of college graduates, they need welders or IT people – whatever the need may be. Then the Manufacturing Alliance forms a committee with [members of] the education community,” says Frank. They work together to strategize the best ways to build up the future workforce and ensure that the county’s educational programming aligns with the needs of local business.
One challenge facing the county is competing globally, and what it needs to achieve this is strong talent and a ready workforce. “This is where we need to make the biggest improvements in the next few years. We must get our workforce headed in the direction that industry wants, rather than trying to develop a workforce that someone else thinks we ought to have. We will put a lot of emphasis on workforce development over the next couple of years,” says Frank.