Andrew Dys

June 16, 2014

Tire plant means two things to Chester County working people: Jobs and hope

Giti Tire will invest more than a half-billion dollars to build a new plant in Chester County, but the number that really matters to working people is 1,700 – how many jobs could be created.

“Little” Chester County finally died Monday morning.

“Little Chester County” was home to handfuls of textile mills and manufacturing plants – most of them Springs textile plants – that closed over the past generation, taking with them thousands of jobs.

Tires – to be made in this county where working people forged an identity of labor unparalleled for a century – drove in the last spike of death.

A bigger, broad-shouldered Chester County was born Monday. A straight-backed, proud county with jobs that will pay decent wages.

Hope, too, was born.

Giti Tire from Singapore, which is on the other side of the world from Chester County, announced it would build its new plant along Interstate 77 near Richburg, about 10 miles from the city of Chester. Those 10 miles will seem like just a few steps to the throngs of people who hope to be among the 1,700 that Giti will eventually hire to make tires in that plant.

“When the mills closed, when Springs pulled out, Chester died,” said Samantha Robertson, a cashier at the iconic Cyclone restaurant in Chester, which is named for the mascot of Chester High School. “Those people that worked in mills knew how to work, worked hard, but the jobs were gone. People come in here even, every day, asking for jobs here or where to find one.

“Maybe this will bring Chester back to life, give people hope for the future here.”

The announcement attended by seemingly anybody in the area who owned a dress or sportcoat and tie was wonderful, a moment of great importance. Hal Stone, the former economic development boss in Chester County, worked for years for South Carolina’s Commerce Department.

But just as importantly, Stone is a Chester man, born and bred. His family is all there. He was raised in Chester’s mill heyday of work and brawn and pride.

“We have tried for 30 years to make something like today happen in Chester County,” Stone said, “and here it is.”

He was hugged by another guy in a suit, just as thrilled by all these jobs that will help working people thrive.

The effect will be felt in Chester, in the little town of Fort Lawn and along the rural backroads of Chester County, where workers displaced by closed mills have another chance at jobs close to home that pay well and offer good benefits. Work-booted men, and women wearing soft-soled shoes waiting tables or working at convenience stores – or even driving as far away as Charlotte for manufacturing or warehouse jobs.

Jobs like those will soon be back in Chester County.

Jessica Cook of Chester, who runs small business Cake Couture, needed 40 hours to bake the tire-shaped cake for Monday’s unveiling. What does this huge tire plant means to people like her family and friends who have been in Chester all their lives?

“Opportunities,” she said. “The chance to find a good job and believe in Chester. To hope for the future and know it is right here.”

On the heels of Chester County’s blue-collar past, recent years have been brutal. The county’s average family income is about $32,000 – $20,000 less than the national average. One in four people in Chester County lives in poverty, making it one of the poorest counties in the state.

And because it is in South Carolina – one of the poorest states in the country – that means the 33,000 people there are living in one of the poorest places in America.

The tire plant, hopefully, will knock the pendulum back toward prosperity. People will be able to find work, qualify for a mortgage or a car loan, put their kids through college. Prosper.

Have the dignity of a job and the pay that comes with it.

Eddie Darby and Thomas James spent days getting ready for Monday’s announcement, working in Chester County’s facilities management.

Darby, 52, worked in a Springs textile mill all his adult life until the mill closed.

“These jobs coming from this tire plant are good jobs,” said Darby, who should know, because he has done honest, hard work all his life.

James, 63, worked in the Superior Essex plant, which made telephone cable, until he was laid off as work went away. James hopes people he knows can find work in the tire plant. He did his best to make the announcement about what matters – jobs – perfect.

On Lancaster Street just west of downtown Chester, Donnie Clack has run a well-known convenience store and grill for more than 30 years. He said the plant – if it happens as announced by politicians and the company – represents a “great day for Chester County.”

“More, it is great for the people of Chester County,” Clack said.

For too long, Clack said, Chester County young people with any ambition have had to move away to find work and opportunity. These 1,700 jobs will go a long way toward changing the county’s future, he said.

In Richburg, workers and customers at the Crenco store just yards from where the plant will be built were understandably skeptical – but they had hope.

“Chester needs jobs,” said Stafford Jones. “I know; I been here all my life.”

S.C. 9 – “Number 9,” as locals call it – borders the plant property to the north. It connects Lancaster and Chester, Richburg and Fort Lawn. It is now the road of hope. A few miles west on “Number 9,” at the county line along the Catawba River, sits tiny Fort Lawn, home to a few hundred souls. It was a city with a population of thousands for decades because of two huge mills.

Until the mills closed.

Julia Davis, 45, drives about 40 miles each way from her home in Fort Lawn to her job along the state line for work.

“If these jobs are good jobs with good pay, good benefits, people won’t have to travel for work,” she said as she stood in line at the Marathon store and grill across from a former Springs mill that once employed hundreds. “Within a few miles of Fort Lawn, there used to be four plants, jobs. But the mills closed and the jobs left.”

Davis said it would be great for people she has known all her life to have a crack at those 1,700 jobs Giti Tire plans to create at its new plant. She plans to check out the company’s website to see if one of those jobs might fit somebody she knows.

In the parking lot of the grill and store in Fort Lawn, Becky Adams of Great Falls talked with her mother, Lela Christopher.

Christopher worked her entire adult life in the J.P Stevens and Springs textile mills. After the mills closed, Adams found work at a paper plant in Great Falls. Monday’s announcement means one thing for people such as her and those she knows.

“Jobs,” Adams said. “The people here need jobs. They work hard, and most who were willing always worked hard. This is great for people who just need a job and are willing to work hard at that job.”

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