COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s manufacturing sector will enjoy a “renaissance” in 2012, helped in part by Bridgestone’s $1.2 billion investment in Aiken County, which should help the region cope with the loss of stimulus money at Savannah River Site.
So said research economist Douglas Woodward on Wednesday during the 31st annual economic outlook conference at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business.
He said Aiken County has reaped a larger per capita benefit from federal stimulus dollars than any other part of the state, considering the more than $1 billion that flowed into the Department of Energy facilities.
“It will be difficult in the coming year because that money is going away,” Woodward said. “On the other hand, they’re compensating for that. ... It’s really good news for the Aiken area to have manufacturing come back.”
Experts predict that manufacturing will enjoy the strongest employment gains in the upcoming year, in addition to growth in business and health services.
While stopping short of endorsing the use of tariffs, the economist said it was significant that the World Trade Organization upheld the Obama administration’s decision to impose a 35 percent tariff on the flood of Chinese tire imports that were dumped in American markets and were said to hurt competition.
It’s difficult to say, however, whether Bridgestone Americas’ expansion in Aiken County will neutralize the funding drop-off at SRS.
“Does it compensate for it? I think it goes a long way towards doing that because, hopefully, these are permanent jobs, unless those duties go away and investments are downsized,” Woodward said. “I don’t think that will be the case. We are building a tire cluster here in South Carolina.”
In October, Continental Tire the Americas announced a $500 million investment in Sumter County for a new tire manufacturing plant, estimated to create 1,700 new jobs in 10 years.
At the beginning of September, the South Carolina Coordinating Council approved Aiken County for a $500,000 set-aside grant to cover public road improvements to support the expansion of the existing Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations site, which was announced in July. On Sept. 21, additional grants totaling $15 million were approved to offset other construction costs, along with job development credits. The state Department of Commerce said in October it would release the so-called Project Hercules Confidential Site Development Transfer and Incentive Agreement and a cost-benefit analysis after talks with Bridgestone to protect proprietary information.
Bridgestone Corp., headquartered in Tokyo, is the world’s largest tire and rubber company. Tennessee-based Bridgestone Americas Inc. is the U.S. subsidiary. The construction of a new 1.5-million-square-foot off-road radial tire manufacturing facility on an Aiken County greenfield site and the expansion of the company’s passenger/light truck tire plant are supposed to yield more than 850 new jobs.
Woodward cast the state in a positive light across sectors, including agriculture. Next year is projected to bring a 2 percent growth in employment, double the rate of 2011, while the state’s unemployment rate is expected to reflect little change.
“Job growth and economic recovery will attract people back into the workforce who left because of a lack of employment opportunities,” economist Joey Von Nessen said. “This will keep the unemployment rate higher than might otherwise be expected.”