Chester County at the Crossroads: Day Three

Construction crews work on York Technical College's Chester campus.
Construction crews work on York Technical College's Chester campus.

CHESTER -- Chester County's future looks much better than its present, local officials say.

Facing the second-highest unemployment rate in the state for the fourth consecutive month, the county's economic climate appears bleak. However, leaders say several projects offer hope that these times won't last.

A York Technical College campus being built in Chester, commitments from several companies -- including one that hasn't formally announced its arrival -- and three proposed housing developments could drastically change the county's outlook.

Here's a glimpse at these projects:

York Technical College

York Technical College's Chester campus is being built on a 40-acre site off S.C. 9 east of the city.

After early bids for the project came in over budget, college officials tweaked the design of the 31,211-square-foot building. A contractor finally was selected in October. College officials hope construction will be finished by November so classes can begin in January 2009, said York Tech President Greg Rutherford.

York Tech already offers some courses at the former Duke Energy office in Chester, but the new campus will be a much larger operation, featuring two distance learning classrooms, three traditional classrooms, one computer lab, four shop areas and two conference rooms.

The campus offers some students the chance to be the first in their families to attend college.

"Chester County is just now trying to get to that point where they can have the first generation going off (to college)," said Rick Whisonant, a local affairs expert and political science instructor at York Tech. "Chester County is very much part of the old South, the old traditionalistic political culture where there's never been a premium put on education."

Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker said the campus provides industrial clients with a local site to train workers. An economic development office also will be located inside the center.

"York Tech coming here is going to be a trigger and a catalyst for a lot of things that we've needed in the past," Parker said.

Industry on the way

Plastics maker Poly-America announced last year it had chosen Chester for a plant with 400 jobs. But more than a year later, no ground has been broken.

That's because the company launched two new product lines that were so successful it had to retool its existing plants in Texas and Nevada, Parker said.

Although it could be as long as two years before Poly-America begins hiring people in Chester, county leaders were pleased to learn that the company has designed the local plant to include the new product lines, meaning it may hire 100 more people than initially expected.

The company plans to break ground in the spring.

Two other businesses on the county's radar decided to locate in Chester. The companies eventually will bring a combined 230 jobs and $14 million in investment, county records show.

One of the companies, JRS Custom Fabrication of Ocala, Fla., announced it was coming to Chester in March. The company designs and manufactures fuel storage tanks, weatherproof enclosures and trailers for the power generation industry.

JRS has 10 people working in a 5,000 square-foot facility in Chester while a larger building is being constructed, Parker said. The building should be completed during the summer. That's when the company likely will begin filling another 160 jobs.

Sixty additional jobs will come from Sloan Industries, county records show. Although the company hasn't formally announced its arrival, a large sign outside its Dawson Drive building bears the business' name.

Job listings posted on the Web site monster.com last month describe Sloan as a start-up company that makes steel buildings.

The company has acquired a 168,000 square-foot facility on 18 acres in Chester that will be used as a corporate headquarters and initial production site, according to the postings. A company representative could not be reached for comment.

Housing developments

Three proposed housing projects could bring thousands of new homes to the area.

More residents means a broader tax base and, leaders hope, more money infused into the local economy. Greater numbers also are more enticing to restaurants and retailers that target certain demographic levels.

With 6,600 acres on both sides of Interstate 77, the largest potential project is Montrose Plantation, which could bring as many as 15,000 homes over 20 years. Providing sewer service to the property is the main issue, Parker said.

The project's developer is undertaking a utilities study to determine the logistics and costs of obtaining sewer service, Parker said.

The need for sewer service also has been a delay for Courtney on the Catawba, a proposed development in Fort Lawn that could bring as many as 750 homes, said Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith.

The project could more than double the population of the small Chester County town of about 850 residents if local leaders decide to annex the site. But negotiations are on hold until the town solves the sewer problems.

The town's waste is treated by Springs Global's old Grace plant in Lancaster County, but not for much longer. Leaders have a plan to send their sewage to another site in Lancaster, but the town doesn't yet have the money for that move.

A housing project proposed in Lando will go before the county's planning commission in February for zoning approval, said Joe Lanford, the Rock Hill developer working on the site, located in northeastern Chester County.

The project could bring between 900 to 1,200 homes, Lanford said. He estimates that construction on the first houses could start in 18 months.

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