Gov. Nikki Haley made her first public visit to York County on Friday with a hard-hat tour of the AbitibiBowater plant, one of the county's largest employers since the 1960s.
Company executives ferried Haley around the campus in a fleet of vans with a group that included David Wilkins, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and former speaker of the S.C. House, and first gentleman Michael Haley.
In a brief interview with reporters, Haley said she could support widening S.C. 5 to allow better access for heavy trucks, long a priority for AbitibiBowater.
"We have to pay attention to infrastructure," she said. "If it's slowing them down, the state needs to step up and do something about it."
Bowater merged with Abitibi-Consolidated in 2007 to create AbitibiBowater. The mill makes coated paper for magazines and books and market pulp, which is used in paper towels and tissues.
For decades one of York County's largest and steadiest employers, the company has faced cutbacks amid a poor economy and changes in the newsprint industry.
The Catawba mill now employs 780 full-time workers, down from a peak of nearly 1,400 in the mid-1980s, human resources director Barry Baker said.
Bump Roddey, a 14-year employee and York County Council member, said Friday he would liked to have joined Haley on the tour to introduce her to plant workers.
"It means a lot to a blue-collar worker to meet any ranking official that deals with state issues, certainly the governor," said Roddey, a Democrat.
The plant is among the few area businesses with an employees' union that bargains for wages and benefits.
Haley, a frequent critic of unions, was sued during her first week in office by two labor organizations after she pledged to keep unions from forming at the new Boeing plant in North Charleston.
"The more heavy-handed the unions are with us, the more we are going to talk smack back," Haley posted Friday on her Twitter page, referring to labor strife in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.
As AbitibiBowater emerged from bankruptcy last year, the Catawba facility stayed profitable, said Richard Evans, non-executive chairman of the board.
"This facility is an outstanding example of how American manufacturing can be globally competitive," Evans said, adding the plant has a "long future" due to its modern, well-maintained equipment.
Haley stopped by before jetting off to Washington, D.C., for weekend meetings hosted by the Republican Governors Association.
Wilkins, a new member of AbitibiBowater's corporate board, said he's still learning about the plant but gets glowing reports in his travels around the state.
"It's the gem of the company," he said. "It's one of the most modern plants, one of the most productive. It's sort of the benchmark."