Thursday, November 13, 2008

More jobs, more traffic to transform Orangeburg

ORANGEBURG — The Economic Zones World video said it all.

“We turn forgotten fields into modern industrial and logistics parks,” the narrator said during a sleek video explaining the Dubai-based company’s plans for Orangeburg County.

In other words, things are changing in this impoverished corner of South Carolina.

Over the next two decades, warehouses and manufacturing plants will dot the rural landscape.

More than 50,000 extra trucks daily will drive up and down interstates 95 and 26, delivering goods to and from the ports in Charleston and Savannah.

More people will move to work in the area and — as a result — they will need houses to live in, schools for their children, medical care and other necessities of life.

Now, Orangeburg County needs to figure out how it will grow with its new economic development project, said Jeannine Kees, chairwoman of the Orangeburg County Development Commission.

“It’s our time,” Kees said. “We have an unprecedented opportunity for our county.”

On Wednesday, the development commission hosted a summit where more than 500 people showed up to hear about Economic Zones World’s plans for its new industrial and logistics hub in the Santee area.

After the company’s plans were explained, the audience gathered in small groups at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to discuss education, work force development, infrastructure and quality of life issues. It was a chance to talk about the real impact of such a large development and how the county’s residents want to grow with it.

For example, Tom Dandridge, chief executive of Regional Medical Center, said his hospital has hired consultants to help figure out what kinds of facilities and services will be needed in Santee.

Already, the hospital has an urgent care center and a health complex for therapy and exercise. The hospital eventually might invest millions to expand.

“We’ll probably build a whole new campus over there,” he said. “It will put a strain on us, but it’s the kind of strain we like.”

County officials hope the development will bring job opportunities to the county, which has an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, the state’s sixth highest.

Any time a county can lower its unemployment rate, it raises the tax base, consumer spending and improves overall wealth.

That, in turn, will help Dandridge’s hospital.

“High unemployment means a lot of patients have trouble paying their bills,” he said. “The jobs will insure people and help them pay for their medical care.”

Just like the hospital plans to spend money to handle the growth, the county will need to invest in improved roads and water and sewer service to the site.

“We have to get ready for the infrastructure side, and how we do it is through dialogue like we’re doing today,” said Gregg Robinson, chief executive of the Orangeburg County Development Commission.

Already, the state and federal governments are modifying an interchange at I-95 and U.S. 301 so it will be ready for the large number of trucks expected to roll in and out of the new park. It should be completed about the time Economic Zones World first phase is finished by 2013, said Steven Eames, vice president and operations manager for the company.

“That’s important for our customers because truck transportation will be one of the main types they use,” he said.

The company’s economic planning formulas predict trucks will make an additional 50,000 trips on the interstates each day, Eames said.

Sixty percent of those will be between the industrial park and the Charleston port while the remainder will be driving inland on I-26 and I-95, he said.

The company also is working with CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads to figure out if their tracks need an upgrade, Eames said.

Eventually, Economic Zones World could bring another 660,000 containers through the Charleston port each year. In 2007, the Charleston port handled 1.75 million containers.

Like the rest of the nation, Orangeburg County is mired in a housing slump.

But real estate developers still are making plans based on Economic Zones World’s arrival in the region. Two major real estate development projects were unveiled Wednesday, including plans to build up to 15,000 homes on more than 3,000 acres between Lake Marion and I-95.

“It’s going to be the economic catalyst we need that gives the thrust to get the market going,” said Julie Rickenbaker of ERA Wilder Realty.

Still, all of this development will be years in the making. Economic Zones World is working through final planning and permitting and plans to break ground in a year. Its development plans stretch through 2032 so the maximum estimates released Wednesday won’t be realized for nearly two decades.

But that’s not stopping Orangeburg County’s residents from making plans and getting excited about the potential.

“People have been waiting and waiting for something to happen to that end of the county,” said Pat Williams, a former real estate broker and owner of Lone Star Barbecue.

“Something this massive takes a lot of time. You’re talking about thousands of jobs that will be available sooner or later. I think it will be for the better.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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