When the then 27-year-old Mark Farris applied to be director of economic development for York County, he competed against applicants who had more years of experience and more successes.
But the search committee was impressed by two factors, said Bayles Mack, a Fort Mill attorney and chairman of the search committee. One was Farris’ ties to the community – he was born and raised in York, and knew the area and its history.
The second, and most important, was Farris’ enthusiasm. While youthful, it also was unconventional. Farris was willing to do whatever it took to bring more businesses to York County, Mack said.
The board took a leap of faith in hiring Farris, remembers Jim Heckle, president of the York County Natural Gas Authority.
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Farris remembers being so green that former County Manager Gene Klugh threatened to fire him several times. “He probably should have,” Farris said, with his trademark grin and chuckle.
Twenty-seven years later, Farris’ enthusiasm convinced the Greenville Area Development Corp. to recruit him to be its next director. He starts his new job Sept. 15. His last official day with York County was last week.
Mack and others saw more traits to support Farris’ enthusiasm – a quiet confidence and a relentless competitive fire. He hates to lose.
Farris has developed a reputation as an effective deal-closer who determines why prospects might not come and finds solutions to overcome their fears, lessen their business risks and accommodate their timetables.
The result is York County has averaged more than $180 million in investment and 1,200 jobs created annually for almost three decades, according to news release from the Greenville Area Development Corp. That’s more than $4 billion in investments since Farris started in 1987. Farris is quick to point out the success is a team effort that starts in his office but frequently includes assistance from Rock Hill, Chester and Lancaster counties, as well as the state.
Deciding to leave York County was not easy, he said. His 27-year career in York County is five times longer than the average tenure of an economic developer in one job. York County is his home. But he is intrigued with Greenville’s competitive advantages.
The icing on the cake is that he and his family – his wife, Erin, and children Cade, Conner and Colin – will be close to several upstate rivers. The family enjoys the outdoors, particularly kayaking.
Farris is confident he is leaving York County with a competitive, diverse economy that would sustain itself even if one sector falters. The economy includes a mix of manufacturers, distribution centers, technology companies and regional headquarters.
It’s quite a transformation for a county where textiles and agriculture were once the primary employers.
Farris knows the area’s economic heritage well. His father, Johnnie, was a supervisor at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. for 30 years. One of Farris’ fondest memories is going to to the company, also known as the Bleachery, for the annual Christmas toy giveaway for employees’ children. Farris worked at the Bleachery during the summers.
Growing up in York, he ran with a group of friends who pushed him academically, as well as athletically. He played high school football and tennis, and was on York Comprehensive’s first soccer team.
At Clemson, he earned undergraduate degrees in education and political science, and a master’s in city and regional planning. He was considering a fourth degree in law before he interned with the Anderson County economic development office.
He came to work one day to find most of the staff fired. It was just he and a secretary when the state Commerce Department called to say that Wal-Mart officials would be in town to consider Anderson for its first distribution center in the state.
Farris remembers grabbing some maps and heading to the site. Officials from the Department of Commerce made sure he stayed on the sidelines as they answered all of Wal-Mart’s questions. They then let Farris do what was customary for the local economic developers – buy everyone lunch.
“I didn’t have a credit card and only had $25 in my pocket,” Farris remembered. “I took them to a Mexican buffet for $3.99 a person and still had money for the tip.”
He became a project manager in Anderson, and then the economic development manager, before applying in York County.
He came home to an insular county, one that “purposefully avoided the state line” and Charlotte, he said. It also had few ties with Columbia.
Farris realized that York County’s economic health was intertwined with Charlotte’s. His pitch to prospects included two regional advantages: a potential labor force that lives on both sides of the border and access to Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Relationships in Columbia were essential since the state Department of Commerce controlled the economic grants. Farris wasn’t shy about asking Mack, who had a long list of friends in the state capital, to use his influence at the Coordinating Council for Economic Development.
Mack, a former state highway commissioner and former York County Council member, said, “He asked me to help break through there, and it was exactly the right thing to do. He was guiding us in the process.”
While Farris says Mack was one of his mentors, Mack said he learned more from Farris.
Farris eventually became successful at convincing Charlotte-based companies to move to York County. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline “Charlotte Has New Enemy in Recruiting: Neighbors.” The article focused on York County’s successful recruitment of four companies from the Queen City, bringing $61.5 million in investment and 1,127 jobs.
In 2001, Wells Fargo moved from Charlotte to York County with 700 jobs. In 2005, CitiFinancial moved with 903 jobs. In 2006, Mergent and HSBC Mortgage Services also brought a combined 680 jobs.
In 2012, Britax, Physicians Choice Laboratory Services and Shutterfly crossed the border with a combined investment of $110 million and 1,000 jobs.
In June, York County announced that LPL Financial and the Lash Group would be leaving Charlotte for Fort Mill, investing a combined $240 million and about 2,000 jobs initially that could swell to as many as 5,400. Those announcements were made the same day that Giti Tire said it would invest $560 million in a Chester County plant that would employ 1,700 people.
To attract companies, the York County Council agreed to reduce property taxes, and state officials offered job credits and assistance to build roads and utilities.
“You can’t blame them for seeking incentives,” Farris said. But, he added, each project was analyzed with a cost-benefit model he pioneered. For every dollar in incentives, the county looks for $9 to $10 of economic benefits, he said.
The border-crossing companies have caused some concern over incentives among Charlotte and North Carolina leaders. Frequently cited is a South Carolina deal-closing fund that can invest millions into projects for site improvement. North Carolina now lacks a comparable fund.
Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, maintains the regional fight aspect is misguided.
Partnership members “won’t poach on another county, but you have to respond when companies reach out to you,” Bryant said.
Farris, Bryant said, was so good at his job that York County always offered a “competitive option” for partnership prospects.
In Greenville, Farris may compete more directly with Charlotte, but even that “doesn’t bother me,” Bryant said. “We have a good connection along the I-85 corridor.”
People in the Greenville region are looking forward to Farris’ regional approach. Carter Smith, who works for the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, was York County’s economic development director before Farris. “I’m hoping he can create an even closer relationship between Greenville and Spartanburg,” Smith said.
The June trifecta of regional economic development projects was a highlight for Farris.
“It was nice to be part of a historic event,” he said, but more importantly, “it takes the county to the next level. It’s the evolution of the business climate, and Class A office space is now being considered in York County.”
But what has given him the most pride over the years is touring a company he helped recruit and seeing workers he knows.
“I see people I went to high school with working steady jobs supporting their families. That what makes this job worth getting out of bed in the morning.”