By Baker Multsby
Richard Blackwell, executive director of Oconee Economic Alliance, stresses the importance of “ready” infrastructure in the pursuit of economic development.
“It is must-have criteria,” he said. “The more ready a site or area, the higher the chances for success.”
So Oconee County has been doing its part to pave the way for companies to thrive. The county has invested more than $18 million in recent years to strengthen its three industrial parks—Golden Corner Commerce Park, Oconee Industry and Technology Park, and Seneca Rail Park—and other key areas.
A primary consideration, not surprisingly, has been road improvements—one of the factors that brought RBC AeroStructures, a division of RBC Bearings, to Oconee County in 2014. The company, which relocated from Clayton County, Ga., manufactures control rods and other high-tech parts for Boeing and other aerospace firms.
Transportation infrastructure is essential, said Kim Veal, human resources director for RBC AeroStructures. “Shipping lines are very important,” she said. “We bring in raw materials every day, and they leave as finished products.”
Providing means for residents to get to and from work or places of business is a key for a local economy, too, and Oconee is home to the nation’s first all-electric bus fleet. Public transportation for the county is managed by the city of Seneca. Six buses run throughout the city and to parts of the unincorporated county, including Oconee Memorial Hospital and shopping centers, according to Ed Halbig, the city’s director of planning and development.
Buses also run to Clemson University, where a good many Seneca residents work or go to school. The university also provides management support for the buses, which are manufactured by Proterra, Inc.’s Greenville facility.
Oconee County Council provides funding support, and the city of Seneca has received several grants to support the fleet, said Halbig, who believes public transportation is a vital resource for longtime residents as well “an amenity” that can attract newcomers.
Roads, bridges, and public transportation are a foundation for economic development, but other infrastructure concerns remain important. Blackwell noted that creating “ready” industrial parks and supporting other locations prime for development requires the expansion of water and sewer lines. As county council chairwoman Edda Cammick put it, “There’s nothing sexy about sewer lines, but it’s so essential.”
There have been heavy investments in the southern portion of the county, near the I-85 corridor, including the completion of a 13.5-mile sewer extension to Golden Corner Commerce Park. The project cost taxpayers about $8 million. Officials are working with the Appalachian Council of Governments to pursue additional grant funding, Cammick said.
Another foundation for attracting industry is, of course, an educated workforce. Oconee County is home to strong public K-12 schools, and there are four colleges and universities, including Clemson, in the surrounding area. As in other parts of the Upstate, leaders have worked to create a symbiotic relationship between schools and companies.
RBC AeroStructures, for example, has hired Clemson students as part of its co-op program. The company also partners with the Hamilton Career Center, which serves students in the School District of Oconee County, to promote technical education and raise awareness about job opportunities that may not require a four-year degree.
Blackwell is particularly excited about a one-of-a-kind innovation that will bring students, educators, and businesses together. The Oconee Industry and Technology Park will soon be the site of a Tri-County Technical College satellite campus. Leaders envision all sort of potential for synergy—internship opportunities for students, guidance from business leaders on curricular matters, training programs that respond quickly to the workforce needs of employers, and more. “Nothing like this concept exists in the state of South Carolina,” Blackwell said. (Halbig said plans call for buses to run to the campus.)
Cammick is excited about the progress Oconee County has made, and she believes her constituents are generally optimistic about the future. Still, challenges remain, she said.
Much of Oconee County is still rural. That’s not a bad thing: The county boasts some of the state’s most beautiful landscapes, and locals are rightly proud and protective. (Indeed, if you visit the county’s official website, you’ll see images on the homepage of waterfalls, rivers, and forests—not highways and industrial sites.)
But there are certain areas where targeted growth would be appropriate, though a lack of infrastructure—water and sewer, mainly—is a hurdle, Cammick says. She mentioned the experience of Jocassee Valley Brewing Company, situated on scenic Highway 11. As the popularity of the taproom has grown, owners have considered expanding as a full-scale brewery. But there’s a problem: Because the business depends on well water, brewing is prohibited by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Expansion of water and sewer lines might also foster the development of residential subdivisions.
Cammick was quick to note that she isn’t in favor of excessive growth in the northern portion of the county, but she believes the area could sustain limited housing development that’s in keeping with its rural character.
Meanwhile, residents and government leaders are trying to come to terms with growth in other parts of the county. In particular, Highway 123 leading to Clemson is seeing more and more traffic. Cammick said the county is commissioning an outside study to help plan for future infrastructure to ease congestion on Highway 123 and nearby roads.
These are predictable challenges for a county that is working to boost economic development while preserving rural communities and natural resources.
On the whole, leaders are pleased with the county’s position. “Just since January 2017, we have had $222 million in new capital investment and 430 new jobs. We are blessed that unemployment in our community is at a 20-year low,” Blackwell said.
Cammick lauds the efforts of Blackwell and his team in recruiting employers to the county, and she believes that infrastructure improvements are making a difference. “I feel that we’re on the right track.”