By GENE ZALESKI, T&D Staff Writer
Although Orangeburg County unemployment rates are hovering at 16 percent and there have been few industrial announcements recently, economic development officials say they're still at work.
Behind the scenes, the county continues to recruit industry as it prepares for the time when the economy turns around, Orangeburg County Development Commission Chairman Jeannine Kees says.
"During these times, we have been really emphasizing the infrastructure growth," Kees said. "Industries will follow infrastructure."
Orangeburg County is the second-largest county in the state by area and the largest rural county in the state with acres of land ready for development. County officials say they need to place utilities in areas currently lacking such services.
Development commission member Jim Roquemore said the county has focused on a long-range, 20-year plan.
"You can see the county has done much work in water infrastructure and sewer infrastructure and there are more plans in the works right now than ever for laying more infrastructure in Orangeburg County," he said.
As part of its strategy, the county wants to spend about $8.1 million from the Capital Projects Sales Tax for economic development-related infrastructure in the I-26/U.S. 301/I-95 area.
The county will ask voters in November to approve the spending, and the continuation of the 1 percent sales tax to pay for it.
Another $13.5 million would be used for economic development and infrastructure projects throughout the county.
A slow economy
Since the downturn, efforts have become more focused as budgets have been trimmed, OCDC Executive Director Gregg Robinson said. The OCDC budget for 2007-2008 was $901,723 and its 2010-2011 budget is $746,245.
"Do we go to a passing game or a running game?" Robinson said. "We are doing the more targeted analysis since we have less dollars to deal with."
OCDC member Gail Fogle said the economic downturn has caused the county to reassess its strengths and weaknesses while still looking at opportunities.
"We have always and will hopefully do a better job of keeping in touch with existing industries and new programs we can help with," Fogle said. "We are blessed to have existing industries who have done expansions and are very stable."
An example was the recent announcement that Husqvarna would make a new investment in machinery and equipment. The lawn tractor manufacturer is Orangeburg County's largest employer.
Fogle says the county has not forgotten sectors such as agribusiness, chemicals, plastics and metal fabrication that have built it through the years.
"We have always been diversified," she said. "That has helped us in the good times and the bad."
Fogle said the county has also geared its efforts toward improving customer service.
"We have good people who are trying to use their time efficiently and looking at things we can build on when things come back. We can see where our weaknesses are and improve on them," she said.
Vibrant economic clusters
While officials have worked to maintain existing jobs, Kees said the county is also focusing on economic clusters that are experiencing more success than others.
For example, she says the county is looking at drawing aviation and aerospace companies to take advantage of Boeing's North Charleston facilities.
The county hopes it can pick the "low-hanging fruit" during a time when other industries seem out of reach.
Officials have been marketing the county in Canada, which has a significant aviation industry, and are working on a strategic plan to have land ready for aviation-related suppliers.
The county is also looking at green energy possibilities in the areas of cellulosic biomass, biodiesel and agribusiness.
One example is the $100 million wood-fired power plant proposed for 55 acres at Orangeburg County's John Matthews Industrial Park. Currently, the company is negotiating a power purchase agreement.
Robinson said the Development Commission is also taking more of a regional approach to economic development by working with the South Carolina Department of Commerce and Central South Carolina in marketing and ensuring the county has multiple shovel-ready sites.
Roquemore is confident the distribution sector will bounce back.
"Distribution will always be a key to development," Roquemore said. "We have the distribution capacity. We are close to large cities and close to several large ports."
Roquemore said Orangeburg County can expect to reap the benefits of being in a right-to-work state as more companies look for a competitive advantage.
"We are as prepared as anybody in the Southeast to take care of any business whether it be distribution or manufacturing," he said.
Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce President David Coleman said the county should not draw inward during the lull in economic activity, but tap into creativity and be proactive.
"I know things are pretty slow in terms of job growth," he said. "Orangeburg County Council is very much pro-development."
Chamber Chairman Mike Johnson said the downturn provides an opportunity for the county to examine itself and make itself more attractive to industry.
He said Orangeburg County has implemented a number of strategies over the last few years, but one of the keys is the development of "soft skills."
"We just need to stay the course and communicate that message," Johnson said. "We have to begin an aggressive campaign to educate the Orangeburg workforce on the importance of world-class customer service and re-brand our great community, starting with a renewed focus on pride in ourselves."
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