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Greenville Business Magazine

Thinking beyond the line is key to Union County’s economic development

By Dustin Waters

Described as the “front porch of the Upstate,” Union County has experienced healthy industrial growth by doing what comes easiest for many rural counties—being a good neighbor. 

By thinking regionally, Union County’s leading industries have thrived thanks to being part of a labor shed that has grown by 30% within the past 10 years. According to Kathy Jo Lancaster, executive director of the Union County Development Board, more than 700,000 highly skilled workers contribute to the area’s success thanks to a variety of dynamic workforce development initiatives. 

“What we have to do being a rural county, and we’ve learned this through the years, is that you have to take an approach from a regional perspective,” says Lancaster. “You have to take your workforce recruitment from a regional perspective, and you also have to have a regional workforce development plan. If you don’t have that as a rural county in the state of South Carolina, then you’re not going to be able to fulfill industry needs. That’s pretty much the bottom line on all that.”

The basis of Union County’s approach to workforce development comes down to three important things: location, location, location. Positioned to not only recruit workers from five nearby counties in the Upstate, Union also attracts talent from the Columbia area, as well as Charlotte. Working together with neighboring counties such as Spartanburg and Greenville to share resources and training opportunities has allowed Union to align training programs with real work opportunities and establish a pipeline of skilled workers for local industries. 

“You have to think beyond the county line. That’s just the power of regionalism. If you don’t, then you’re going to limit yourself,” says Lancaster. “I think Union County probably realized that early on. We’re part of a fast-growing region, Upstate South Carolina.”

With Union County’s leading target sectors including advanced manufacturing, biosciences, and warehousing and logistics, the area has become home to a unique and diverse crop of companies thinking globally and beyond. 

Gestamp, an international manufacturer of metal automotive components, supplies both the Upstate’s BMW plant and the Lowcountry’s Volvo production facility. Located in Union County, Standard Textile’s terry cloth products are carried at Marriott properties worldwide, while Carlisle Finishing’s line of camouflage is used to outfit the American Armed Forces. Timken’s locally manufactured bearings are used on rigs and wind turbines all around the world, as well as on aircraft and spacecraft. 

Union County is also home to Haemonetics, whose blood management devices and consumables are used in hospitals emergency rooms and surgical centers worldwide. Also, Union County has welcomed its newest industry, Kemper Corporation, one of the leading manufacturers of cargo straps and securement products worldwide.

According to Lancaster, more than 80 percent of growth in Union County has come from the success of industries in their target sectors, and over 90 percent has been the result of existing industry expansion. Over the past seven years, five new companies have set up shop in Union County, four of which have already announced expansion projects. Meanwhile, seven existing companies have announced expansions to the tune of more than $500 million in capital investments and over 1,500 new jobs. 

One key approach to growth in Union County is asset-based economic development. Developers look at the area’s existing resources, consider what would be the best fit for the county, and recruit those projects while supporting the existing industries. And when it comes to existing resources in Union County, it’s all about the area’s sizable utility infrastructure. 

As a “utility friendly” community, Union County is served by five electric power companies with strategies in place to add or upgrade facilities based on industry needs. The City of Union not only serves as one of the county’s power providers, but also supplies water, sewer, and natural gas. With this level of resources already secure, Union County will continue to target advanced manufacturing projects, in addition to emerging sectors requiring significant utility infrastructure such as agribusiness, information technologies, and research and development-based projects.

“Our success comes from thinking globally, embracing regionalism, and utilizing partnerships,” explains Lancaster. “The majority of industrial growth comes from the expansion of existing industries; by keeping our industry partners happy, they become our best community ambassadors. They tell our story for us — why they came here, stayed here, and expanded here.”