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How Chester secured 'Project Southport'

The April meeting two years ago on a field in rural Chester County certainly seemed out of place.

Underneath a large, funeral-style tent were gentlemen in suits and a woman in high heels. They were surrounded by easels holding charts. A few of the people were in more casual attire. Their appearance said they were used to doing the heavy lifting.

The group was not bothered. It was too hot a day to be curious.

But if inquisitive minds had asked, they would have left without any answers. At best, questions would have been greeted with a smile and shrug of the shoulders.

Such was Project Southport. It was the pivotal meeting in the project.

On one side were the presenters from the Chester County economic development office.

With them were community leaders and people prepared to answer questions about things such as utilities, especially rail access. Those coming had inquired about rail. Chester County has about 3,000 available sites that, through the Lancaster & Chester Railroad, have access to CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.

On the other side were the listeners. They did not say who they represented, but were clearly shocked when they arrived. Karlisa Parker, Chester County's economic developer, said their first reaction was, "Oh, my God, are we having a party?"

They asked questions, lots of questions. The Chester team gave the answers and provided the visitors with packets of papers, plus thumb drives and computer discs filled with data. They wanted to make sure they had their information in whatever format was convenient to their guests.

Answers in hand, the listeners left. Chester officials later found out it was just one of 60 visits the listeners made to nine states.

Last week, it was officially announced Jones-Hamilton Co., an Ohio-based chemical manufacturer, is coming to Chester County. The firm plans to build a $29 million plant that will employ 15 people. The official announcement came from Gov. Nikki Haley's office.

It was a great day in South Carolina; Project Southport was a success.

If it sounds like a scene from a suspense novel, that's the way most economic development projects are done. Projects get code names to shield the identity of the prospect. Information is on a need-to-know basis. Elected leaders often are initially not told much beyond the type of project, the potential investment and possible jobs.

When things get closer to possible, those with need to know sign confidentiality agreements, swearing they will give up their first-born child if they talk. Some agreements have financial penalties for disclosure.

Millions of dollars are riding on the outcome, and everyone wants to win. There are more losses than wins, but when you win, the joys are great - jobs and tax revenue, even if you have to offer incentives or forgo some taxes to seal the deal.

This win for Chester took two years of work. While unemployment in Chester County has been at historic highs since 2009, those working Project Southport needed to make sure the prospect was a good fit.

It had to literally and figuratively pass the smell test. Chemical plants - really almost any manufacturing facilities - have distinct aromas. Chester officials want to make sure the prospect, just like any other prospect, was not a sore thumb in its community. They were impressed that the chemical plant's neighbor was Owens Community College, which came after the chemical plant was built.

Again there was a meeting of the suits. This time they met inside. Outside it was sleeting. The hosts from Jones-Hamilton Co. confided that Chester County was the most prepared and had the best presentation of the 60 sites visited.

"That said volumes about the things we had done," said Mike Enoch, general manager of the Chester County Gas Authority and chairman of the Chester Development Association.

"People were thinking that things were at a stalemate," said Joe Branham, a member of the County Council. But, "we've never given up to get ahead of the curve."

The 15 jobs Jones-Hamilton is creating, along with 24 by Rolled Alloys - a Michigan-based company that also announced last week it's coming to Chester - will only marginally affect the county's unemployment rate. Assuming all hires are local, the 39 new jobs would drop the unemployment rate by only about a half a percent.

That's hardly good news for those seeking work. The unemployed will overwhelm a company if there is even a hint they are hiring. Ring Container Technologies learned that last week. The Chester County firm finished a $7.89 million expansion and hired about 18 people. The jobs have been filled, but when the Ring Container Technologies was cited as another example of Chester's economic development success, job applicants flooded the firm.

The encouraging word is that firms are starting to invest money in new plants or expansions.

So the suspense continues. So much so that last week, Parker said a prospect, which she didn't name, didn't even share a codeword, visited Chester County. Parker said she provided the same kind of information to the visitor she had given to Jones-Hamilton and to Rolled Alloys.

Parker did share their reaction.

"They said, 'Wow!'" she said.