The city of Lancaster’s biggest recruiting tool in its quest to replace the departing Duracell operation, Jamie Gilbert says, is the quality of Duracell’s workforce. “We’ve been out there several times in the last couple of months,” said Gilbert, Lancaster County’s economic development director. “What you see is a workforce that is as committed and dedicated to get the job done as they were prior to the announcement they were closing. “You don’t see any loss of enthusiasm,” he said. “If we’re on a short list for a company and we could take them through that facility, I think it would close the deal.”
Gilbert told Lancaster City Council at its May 23 meeting that the city is “the heart of soul” of the county’s manufacturing jobs base. The battery maker announced in July 2016 that it is shutting down its S.C. 9 Bypass West plant to consolidate production of AA and AAA batteries at a single plant in LaGrange, Ga. That loss means the elimination of 430 full-time jobs, as well as a wallop to local tax coffers.
The city of Lancaster, Lancaster County and the Lancaster County School District all depend on property tax revenue generated by the plant, though the level of dependency varies. Last year, Duracell paid about $1.2 million in school taxes, $474,000 in county taxes and $608,000 in municipal taxes to the city of Lancaster. That is 6 percent of the city of Lancaster’s general fund budget, and officials are working to attract other manufacturers. “It’s a big hit,” said Lancaster Mayor John Howard. “I’m hoping and praying that we can rectify the loss of a major industrial entity with something that’s just as good or better.”
The shutdown will be completed in phases with operations anticipated to end mid-2019. The Lancaster Economic Development Department plans to market the 300,000-square-foot Duracell building before the plant shuts down its Lancaster operation. Gilbert said since the building won’t be vacant until the summer of 2019, it can’t be listed with the S.C. Department of Commerce until a year before it’s available, though it might be ready to market earlier than that. Gilbert said he anticipates that the battery manufacturer will have its first round of layoffs in the last quarter of 2017 to start downsizing. “In order to drive more activity to Lancaster, Heath Springs and Kershaw, we have made a concerted effort to offer a higher level of incentives and make those incentives easier to qualify for,” he said, noting that his office has put a focus on drawing industry to areas of the county outside the Panhandle.
Gilbert also told city council that his office and the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce are working to find a joint office site in downtown Lancaster. The chamber’s current office is on Colonial Avenue near Lancaster County Memorial Stadium, and the economic development office is on West Meeting Street near the Mackey Family Medical complex.
Gilbert said it’s vital that both agencies move into the heart of the downtown business district. A vibrant downtown, he said, is also a selling tool to attract new industry. “We think there’s a lot of synergy by both being together…. We need to get downtown,” he said.
Kershaw site update
Gilbert’s office is also working with the town of Kershaw on the development of a 125-acre industrial park along Railroad Avenue. The tract is almost across from H&H Chevrolet on Kershaw Camden Highway and runs to North Matson Street. Adjacent to the railroad tracks, the property was recently annexed into the town. It’s also now going through the rezoning process to allow industrial uses. So far, the town has spent about $320,000 on land and site-plan development.
“We think it’s a great asset to Lancaster County and Kershaw,” Gilbert said at the May 15 Kershaw Town Council meeting. The key, he said, is getting an S.C. Commerce Department site-certification plan that puts it on the books as an industrial park. “There aren’t a whole lot of those parks across the state,” he said. “The only one in Lancaster County is the air-rail park, so it would be a big win for Kershaw. Gilbert said his office is also trying to determine what type of industries would fit best in the southern end of the county. “The railroad is a key asset and, fortunately, this park has that,” he said. “Not having four-lane traffic access obviously makes it a little more challenging, but when you are able to attract rail users, they are less dependent on trucks. We think that could be a real benefit.”
Gilbert said fiscal 2016-17 has been one of the best years in county history when it comes to job creation. To date, he said seven projects – totaling more than 2,700 new jobs and $79 million in investment have been announced.
“That crushes any jobs for fiscal years we’ve had in the past,” he said. “It’s been a pretty successful year for the county.” Right now, he said there are 11 potential projects in the pipeline with Lancaster addresses. “We’re a small office, but we get a lot done with a lot of time and effort put in by this group,” he said.
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