Don Worthington

Talk about mega job announcement has Chester County buzzing

Is there a hidden message in the invitation to Monday’s economic development announcement at the Gateway Conference Center?

Why are those invited asked to wear red?

Chester County residents are looking anywhere they can for clues as to who is coming and promising to invest $560 million and employ 1,500.

Libby Gaston is as anxious as any other Chester resident to know the answer. She feels certain, though, that she has two clues others lack.

One, her son, Joe Jr., was asked this year not to plant wheat, hay and corn on some of the land he leases on what longtime Chester County residents remember as the Robinson farm. The land is part of Chester County’s mega-site, more than 1,000 acres between S.C. 9, the Lancaster Highway, and S.C. 56, the Old Richburg Road.

The mega-site is advertised by the county as “ideally suited for large-scale manufacturing operations,” with a labor pool that is “deep, skilled and affordable.” The site has access to two I-77 interchanges, is 45 minutes from Charlotte Douglas International Airport and 167 miles from the Port of Charleston and is served by the Lancaster and Chester railroad.

Second, Gaston said, if the owners of the soon-to-be-named company have come to Chester County, “we’ve probably fed the people coming.”

Gaston is the owner of the Front Porch restaurant, one of economic development officials’ favorite places to bring prospects. Gaston puts them in a separate room so they can have private conversations and advises her wait staff to be polite, but not too curious. If the economic development folks can’t come to the Front Porch, she will cater their lunch at their Gateway Conference Center offices just across I-77.

Either way, the guests will get more-than-generous portions of fried chicken, barbeque and apple cobbler, for which the Front Porch has a widespread reputation.

On Monday, South Carolina, Chester County and York County officials are hoping to make a reputation that echoes far beyond the state’s border with a simple message: “South Carolina is OPEN for business.”

First there’s the morning announcement in Richburg by Gov. Nikki Haley. Many suspect the company is auto-related.

Monday afternoon Haley will be in York County to announce what many expect to be two “Class A” office projects that could bring an investment in excess of $200 million and more than 5,000 jobs.

The combined total of 6,500 jobs and $760 million in investment is likely among the best one-day results for Gov. Haley. The only project announcements bigger in investment during her administration are the $1 billion expansions by Boeing and BMW. The top two announcements by job creation are Boeing at 2,000 and Continental Tire’s new tire plant in Sumter at 1,650. Each of the York County projects is expected to exceed 2,000 jobs.

Details of South Carolina and local government investment in the projects hopefully will be released Monday. While not specifically linked yet, the state’s Coordinating Council for Economic Development has awarded Chester County a $2 million grant and York County has applied for two $2 million state grants for economic projects. The grant would be used to build roads, install water and sewer lines and make other site improvements.

Chester and York county governments are also considering property tax breaks for the companies. Typically, York County’s fee-in-lieu tax agreements cut a company’s property tax by 47 percent over 30 years.

The saving could be more if the prospects qualify for a “super” fee-in-lieu agreement. Among the criteria for such an agreement is creating 200 new jobs and investing $400 million, according to the state Department of Commerce.

The prospective companies also likely would qualify for job development credits, which provides companies with funds – for up to 10 years – to help offset the cost of locating a facility, buying equipment or training employees. There also are job tax credits, which can cut 50 percent of an employer’s income tax liability. The state’s corporate income tax rate is 5 percent.

While the property tax breaks and other incentives are important to the prospects, Monday’s announcements are all about jobs for South Carolina residents. While the unemployment rates in the region have been steadily falling, South Carolina’s labor force participation rate, which measures the share of working-age residents who are employed or looking for work, was 57.9 percent in April, fourth lowest in the country.

For Chester County residents, the prospect of local jobs means ending long drives to work. One out of every two workers in Chester County commutes to work in either York or Mecklenburg county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The new jobs won’t just come from a new manufacturing plant, Chester and York officials say. They expect a project of this size will have lots of spinoffs, including more residential and retail development.

Libby Gaston knows a little bit about the spinoff effect. When she opened the Front Porch 30 years ago, the only food available at the interchange was a gas-station hot dog. Over time the Front Porch has been surrounded by a McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Country Omelet. A Zaxby’s is under construction across the highway. Other restaurants have opened just across the I-77 interchange.

Nonetheless, 60 percent of her business exits I-77 for homestyle cooking and hospitality, she said.

With the possibility of new customers, Gaston said, she may consider doing things differently. Don’t expect the menu to change, but lunch service could be cafeteria style, she said.

There’s one possibility Gaston, Chester County residents and the bevy of state and local officials don’t want to consider: if Monday’s prospect pulls out. Chester County has experienced that scenario several times before, prompting county Supervisor Carlisle Roddey to remark, “We’ve been the bridesmaid too long. We need to be the bride.”

“We would be so disappointed, so disappointed,” Gaston said, “if this doesn’t come through.”

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