Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Inland port on horizon

By Robert Behre (Contact)
The Post and Courier
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SANTEE — Melvin Bannister stood outside his house and was asked to imagine how his rural community might change when Jafza International begins building here next year.
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Corridor of Hope

When U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn ran for re-election in the fall, he said improving the Interstate 95 corridor was his 'obsession.' 'That is one of the major arteries in our country, and to have the stretch in South Carolina the poorest, least educated, most unhealthy communities in our state, that's an abomination,' he said. The election of Clyburn and President Barack Obama provides new hope. The Post and Courier visited four communites along I-95 -- Dillon, Florence, Santee (and Orangeburg) and Walterboro.

Jerome Prosser bails rows of Switchgrass.

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He hasn't seen the plans, but he knows the Dubai-based company, a subsidiary of Economic Zones World, plans to build on a sod farm close to his family's homes and about 26 adjoining acres they have leased to a cotton farmer.

Bannister said he knows older residents have lived here for a while, "and they ain't rushing to move."

But the enormous project could be the single biggest game changer for economic development along Interstate 95, one of the poorest parts of South Carolina.

The plan from Economic Zones World, which owns Jafza International, would establish a campus of light manufacturing, warehouse and distribution operations, creating a sort of inland port that could employ more than 3,000 people by the time it starts operations in 2012.

"Jobs-wise, it will be something in the long run (that will be) good for the community," Bannister said. "Right now, we're just waiting for when somebody comes along and says something to us, then we'll go from there."

The prospect of Jafza's arrival and the creation of an inland port here is a partial culmination of something U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has pushed for since he first got elected from South Carolina's 6th District in 1992. Clyburn has called the I-95 corridor his "obsession."

Years before Clyburn was elected to Congress, he served on Gov. John West's staff and saw a memo about how industrial developers were steering prospects away from Interstate 95 and toward Interstate 85, largely because they feared the minority population along I-95 would be more receptive to unions.

"It was all part of the anti-union movement — who is inclined to join unions?" Clyburn said. "That's why all the development is up along the I-85 corridor."

Clyburn said the I-95 corridor also didn't have a big advocate until he was elected in 1992 as the state's first black congressman since Reconstruction.

He noted that the Jafza project has been made possible only after he helped establish the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency, which currently provides water to the Santee community.
Corridor of Hope

Read the series on improving economic condidtions along the I-95 corridor from The Post and Courier.

When work began on the water plant, Clyburn called it one of the most significant events he has ever been involved with. "For some residents, this is the first step toward quality drinking water and for some communities, it is the first step toward attracting much-needed economic investments," he said. "Just as transportation infrastructure is the asset that will drive the economy along the I-95 corridor, the lack of this crucial puzzle piece in other areas of this region has contributed to the most pronounced negative conditions in remote areas of this region."

Gregg Robinson, executive director of the Orangeburg County Development Commission, is one of the county's greatest cheerleaders, and he is acutely aware of how Jafza's plans could reshape the public perception of business opportunities along I-95.

"Our mission is to increase the quality of life. How you do it is quality payroll," he said. "When you look at the 95 corridor, it's one of the poorest, least- developed corridors in the nation, and we have the opportunity to fix that. They're not making any new land on I-85."

To keep Jafza on track, Orangeburg County and Santee plan to work with federal and state governments on two new pieces of infrastructure for the area they're now calling the "Global Logistics Triangle," the land bordered by Interstates 26 and 95 and U.S. Highway 301.

That work includes a new $11 million sewer treatment plant planned by the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency, as well as a redesign of the I-95 and U.S. 301 interchange.

John McClauchlin, a project manager with the Orangeburg County Development Commission, noted that local voters already have indicated they are willing to chip in, approving a continuation of the county's local sales tax that's expected to provide about $71 million to help with 115 different projects.

As the pieces fall into place, Robinson said the project could transform the southern part of the county.

"What Jafza offers, what the economic zone offers, is so different," he said. "They currently have 6,000 customers. They're creating a linkage to the world for us. It's not a typical developer. These guys are the biggest and the best in the world, especially with the acquisition of Gazeley, the international arm of Wal-Mart. ... Their contacts list is tremendous."

Santee Mayor Silas Seabrooks Jr. said his town with fewer than 1,000 residents could see 3,000 new jobs within the next four years.

He said the only things that might not change are the town's golf courses and its lake — and hopefully its image as an oasis for recreation.

"The rest of it will change," he said. "You will have negative feedback as well as positive. That comes with the territory. Anytime you grow, you've got growing pains."

But Seabrooks said he is confident the project will help the town's morale.

"I would like to see some of the kids who graduate out of college come back home and work, get a job and pay something back to the society," he said.

As the Panama Canal gets widened and more ships seek ports along the East Coast, and as Charleston's port expands, Seabrooks might get his wish.

"It's coming up 26," Robinson said. "We're in the path of progress, so we've got to get ready for it. ... We're fortunate because we have a lot of land."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com.

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