As available space for incoming businesses dwindles, York County leaders are looking at ways to build new space that will provide ready housing for new businesses.
If we want businesses to move in with us - instead of with our neighbors - we're going to need new space, and the county could help build it, county leaders say.
They're called speculative buildings, or "spec" buildings, and when the economy is strong, private companies build them anyway, hoping businesses will buy and move into them, said county economic development director Mark Farris.
York County averaged about one a year, until a year and a half ago when the economy slumped, he said.
Available space is what businesses want, county leaders say. And they're waiting until they're "busting at the seams" to look for new space, said County Manager Jim Baker at a State of the County breakfast at the Rock Hill City Club on Tuesday morning.
"The expectations of companies is that they be able to find a location and immediately get up and running," he said.
And now as the county's list of available buildings dwindles, county leaders are working to figure out how to create more to meet what has been an increasing demand, Farris said.
Farris and Baker both envision public-private partnerships where the county works with a developer that has the expertise and experience to create the buildings.
"We're not developers," Farris said. "We'll look for some help in the process."
The goal is to create a plan that allows the county to participate in building spec buildings.
With the idea taking shape, the county has "no formula" yet for how that partnership would work. Simply put, both the county and development partner would invest in the project, and the county would get its money back when the completed building sells or leases, Farris said.
Then the county could reinvest the money in another project, he said.
The county has about $800,000 of grant funds collected from utility company licensing fees it could apply to such projects. The state allows local governments to use those grant funds for infrastructure improvements or buying land and building, Farris said.
That's all the money the county would need to embark on the scale of projects in demand, Farris said.
With companies such as Winbro Group Technologies, Pulchra Chemicals, Lava Textiles and Supermetal Structures moving into existing buildings in the last four months, the demand for spaces compatible with manufacturing and industrial business is on the rise, Farris said.
Following that trend, the first spec building would be a 40,000-square-foot facility with flexible open space and potential for expansion, he said.
Not acting now means losing opportunities, he said.
"If we don't have the space, we don't get the looks."
Spec building is "a gamble," but a good risk, Farris said.
By attracting more businesses, "it will have direct beneficial impacts on our unemployment rate and the economic vitality of the county," he said.
Lessening the risk is the "significant interest" businesses have shown in the county "for the first time in a year and a half," including new business arrivals, he said.
Baker said the need for the county to invest in spec buildings would end with an upswing in the economy.
"We don't want to compete with the private sector" which will likely resume building on speculation, he said.
York isn't the only county looking at spec buildings as a way to attract new businesses.
Lancaster County is planning two now, said Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corp.
Tunnell knows about losing buildings for lack of space.
Winbro, now leasing space in Rock Hill's Waterford Business Park, was looking in Lancaster, Tunnell said. And Nutramax Laboratories passed up York among other places for Lancaster, Tunnell said.
But Tunnell said all counties benefit from each other's success.
"We all share the labor," he said. "The more spec buildings we can build, the more successful we'll be as a region."
The value of spec buildings is something Tunnell said he'd bet his career on.
The York County economic development board is exploring ways to make the plan work. Next, it will seek input from developers and the county, Farris said.
"And then it will take enough will to pull the trigger and say, 'Yes, this is a risk and a gamble, but it's a good risk.'"
Baker says it could be as early as next year when the County Council will see a proposal.
Increasing water demand
In addition to finding space for businesses, Baker said providing water to all the county's residents and businesses as the county grows will become an increasing challenge in coming years and an impediment to economic development.
Baker called for a "regionalization of water and sewer services" to replace the existing tangle of service providers with their numerous contracts and inconsistent standards. Without such a move, water service will "end up restricting growth," he said.