Tuesday, December 23, 2008

S.C. counties to benefit from neighbor’s ‘big score’

By Charles Taylor
SENIOR STAFF WRITER for the National Association of Counties

Change is on the horizon along a stretch of Interstate 95 in rural South Carolina that has come to be known as the “corridor of shame.”

County officials attending a recent regional economic development summit in Orangeburg County got a preview of a major project that many hope will lift this area’s fortunes and change its nickname to “corridor of fame.”

ImageJafza International, a company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, plans to invest $600 million to build a distribution hub near the town of Santee in largely rural Orangeburg County. It’s a place where good jobs are scarce and the poverty rate is high, thus earning its unflattering moniker.

The site is in an area dubbed the “Global Logistics Triangle,” bordered on three sides by Interstates 95 and 26, and U.S. Route 301. This “inland port” would receive shipments from the Port of Charleston, the second busiest on the East Coast, about 60 miles away.

For local officials who attended the Orangeburg County Economic Development Summit last month — where Jafza unveiled its master plan — it is the culmination of more than a decade of regional cooperation.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House Majority Whip who represents the area, has called the development a “game-changer.” When fully built-out, Jafza estimates the project could create some 3,700 new jobs by 2020 and thousands more spin-off jobs. Currently, the unemployment rate in Orangeburg County, population 92,000, currently hovers around 12.5 percent, compared to 7.5 percent statewide, according to Gregg Robinson, the county’s economic development director.

Twenty-one percent of the county’s residents lived below the federal poverty level in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — compared to 15 percent statewide.

For Orangeburg and five neighboring counties, attracting Jafza’s first U.S. venture can be traced back in large part to a joint effort — over more than a decade — to develop water infrastructure.

Orangeburg and the counties of Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Dorchester, Sumter, and the town of Santee, worked together to create the Lake Marion Regional Water Authority. Its facility provides 8 million gallons per day, which is enabling development in this economically depressed region.

“That has really been the one thing that has solved the capacity issue for this whole area of I-95,” said Bill Clark, Orangeburg County administrator. “We have just never had the water and wastewater infrastructure to support development along this triangle.”

Jason Ward, Clark’s counterpart in Dorchester County, to the south, said, “We’re kind of literally doing community development through the Lake Marion regional water agency, as well as industrial development.”

The $30-plus million waterworks began operating about a year ago, and Clark said the project “required all of these six counties to learn how to work together for the good of the whole.”

“It’s the result of better than a decade worth of prioritization of our limited resources,” Clark added, “and a whole host of collaborations that we developed with our municipal entities in our county, our neighboring counties and most critically, local imposition of a 1 percent sales tax to be able to put in the infrastructure that made the [Jafza] project possible.”

Orangeburg County voters have twice approved the penny-per-dollar tax whose proceeds helped fund the water authority, and other economic development and community enhancement projects.

Orangeburg and Dorchester counties’ fates are intertwined along their shared border — between lower Orangeburg and upper Dorchester — where the counties “share very similar unemployment stats,” Ward said. Overall, Dorchester County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, less than 6 percent. But in the northern part of the county, “unemployment is 9.5 percent and over 22 percent for African Americans,” he said.

The area also has a high school dropout rate 10 percent higher than the statewide average, Ward said.

To improve its outlook, and the region’s, Orangeburg has developed other cooperative agreements with counties, said Robinson, the county’s economic development director. For example, Orangeburg and Dorchester are conducting a joint study of I-95 and I-26 to determine which exits are suitable for industrial development. “The idea is, Dorchester benefits from what we do, and vice versa,” he said.

The two counties are also collaborating on a multi-county industrial park. South Carolina allows counties with “underdeveloped” industrial tax bases to jointly build industrial parks with counties whose tax bases are more developed.

Dorchester is considered to be more developed than Orangeburg, Ward said, and the partnership allows Orangeburg to receive an additional $1,000 in state Commerce Department jobs tax credits per job created.

“…As a result of that, any project that lands in an area that is designated as a multi-county industrial park in Orangeburg pays 99 percent of its fee in lieu of taxes to Orangeburg and 1 percent to Dorchester,” Ward explained.

Robinson said three other counties are collaborating to create a “mega-site” of more than 1,000 acres — Clarendon, Sumter and Lee counties. “It’s not [located] in all three counties, but it’s close enough” to benefit them all, as well as Orangeburg County, Robinson said. “There’s nothing that would benefit me more, or Jafza when they bring in their [suppliers].”

Ward summed it up: “Our fates are definitely tied together, and it is a regional approach and one that I think is really going to pay big dividends for our citizens.”

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