By Chris Haire
The rise of the Upstate as a manufacturing hub is one of the essential stories of the 21st Century American South. It is a story that has led to population booms, revitalized downtowns, and tied the area to the lucrative international automobile industry.
And now that story is beginning to be told outside of the tri-county heart of the Upstate—Anderson, Greenville, and Spartanburg—and in rural Union County.
With a population of only 27,537, Union is much smaller than the neighboring Big Three, where the smallest of the trio is home to nearly 200,000 residents while the biggest is at half a million. Whereas Anderson, Greenville, and Spartanburg have grown over the past seven years, their rural neighbor of Union has seen a population decline of 4.9 percent.
But new business and new jobs are coming—and with it comes the need to make sure the county’s infrastructure needs—in particular, its roads and bridges—are being met.
Auto supplier Gestamp is in the process of expanding its Union County facility to the tune of $129 million, bringing with it 130 new jobs, while cargo strap maker Kemper recently announced that it will spend $1.9 million to update a 18,000 square foot facility at 100 Times Boulevard near the Highway 176 Duncan Bypass. Both sites should be up and running this year.
Union County Development Board Executive Director Kathy Jo Lancaster said the county as a whole has seen an estimated 1,000 new jobs over the past decade, according to a December 2017 Union Times report.
“Since 2011, 12 companies located and/or expanded their operations in Union County,” she says. “From an economic development perspective, investments in infrastructure lay the foundation in our communities for growth. Union County continues to place a high level of importance in maintaining and expanding its infrastructure as an important strategy to recruit new industry, retain our existing industry, and encourage expansion projects, which will no doubt result in growth and prosperity for the county, region, and state.”
The biggest current project centers around a $26 million project to repair the Lockhart Bridge over Broad River in the Town of Lockhart.
In the town, Highways 49 and 9 merge and cross over the river, before splitting apart. The bridge is a vital piece of Union County infrastructure. “Highway 49 is a major route to the I-77 corridor,” Lancaster notes. Interstate 77 connects Columbia with Charlotte.
That’s not the only major project, Lancaster says. “In the coming months, Union County will begin a $4.2 million resurfacing project along U.S. Highway 176,” she notes. “This is a major growth corridor for Union County industries.”
The mayor of the city of Union, Harold Thompson, says that latter stretch needs some road repair love.
“We have one little issue with Highway 176: it’s real bumpy,” he says, before pointing out that the road southbound is fine, while the northbound portion of the highway leading to Spartanburg is in need of repaving.
The northbound road brushes by the Dollar General Distribution Center on Highway 9, just outside of Jonesville. The distribution center opened in 2005.
Like Lancaster, Thompson believes that with an asphalt makeover, a bump-free Highway 176 could be a boon for the area.
“If a little more attention was paid to it, we might be able to push more development out there,” Thompson says. “There is a lot of property that is available. We own a bit of it.”
For Lancaster, county infrastructure improvements have helped make the area more attractive to international business, in particular the Gestamp, Gonvauto, and GES Recycling family of businesses. The three companies are BMW suppliers.
“Each of these industries have experienced tremendous growth, and all have expanded their operations since locating in Union County,” Lancaster says. “Infrastructure development and improvement projects were fundamental drivers in the location and expansion processes for these industries.”
Since locating in Union, she adds, “Gestamp has added nearly 1 million square feet of infrastructure to operate the Union South Carolina manufacturing facility. As a direct result, Gonvauto and GES are currently in the process of adding additional infrastructure, including road and rail components to their operations as well.”
Currently, Union County doesn’t offer public transportation, but according to Katherine Pendergrass, Union County director of workforce development, the lack of such a service “is not ‘critical’ at this point.” However, the county is conducting a Transit Feasibility Study looking at transportation challenges. Pendergrass says the county will release the results of the study later this summer.
“There are not really any ‘public’ options other than a taxi and one or two private vehicles that provide limited transportation services,” Pendergrass says. “There are also several transportation providers, such as S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation; Council on Aging, Veterans Affairs, Disabilities and Special Needs Board; and The Potter’s House, that provide transportation services specifically for their clients only.”
The study is being paid for by state MassTransit Funds from the SCDOT, according to the Catawba Regional Council of Governments. As part of the study, attendees of last year’s Union County Christmas Parade were asked to participate in a transportation survey. The public in general was encouraged to fill out the survey online or in person at the Union County Courthouse, S.C. Works Union, and the Union County Chamber of Commerce.