Originally created 07/06/97

Wagener attracts city refugees



WAGENER -- Looking over a stack of loan applications lining her desk, Connie Jeffcoat said with a smile, "Business is really picking up here."

It's a trend that outsiders who travel along major thoroughfares en route to this town may not realize, considering these entrances are marred by a dull gray - the color one associates with a landscape filled with decaying buildings and other man-made litter.

Over the years, Wagener's once-green landscape has yielded to the grayness of concrete and run-down housing on the edge of town. But once inside the town limits, definite signs show a rural community bent on expansion.

Freshly painted buildings line Main Street. Once-vacant storefronts are occupied by family-owned businesses. A Lions Club has been chartered, and a part-time town administrator helps out at least three times a week.

Something good is happening.

"Visibly, the changes began taking place about a year ago, but there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work that people aren't aware of," said Mrs. Jeffcoat, manager of Security Federal, the town's only bank, which handles more than 3,000 personal deposit accounts - many more than 40 years old.

The economic burst is attributed mainly to the migration of city folks yearning for a small-town atmosphere, she said.

Figures from the 1990 South Carolina census indicate that an estimated 1,300 people live in Wagener, but more than 22,000 live within a 15-mile radius, overlapping from Aiken into Lexington and Orangeburg counties.

"The growth is mainly coming from the Lexington and Columbia areas," said Mrs. Jeffcoat, whose husband owns a real estate agency in town."Life is simpler here, taxes are less and so is the crime rate."

Mrs. Jeffcoat and her husband, Bill, returned to Wagener from Cayce in 1989. They live in a serene subdivision bordering Edisto Lake. From their front porch they have seen cardinals, owls and an occasional bald eagle.

"We went from paying $1,500 in taxes a year on a $120,000 house to $326 a year on a $112,000 home," she said.

Further proof can be found at the corner post office, which issues an average of two new addresses per day. A new facility, which should open soon, has also been built to accommodate the increase. A new fire department was built and a new fire truck recently purchased.

Wagener once was the hub of a predominantly agricultural community, but today only 4.8 percent of the population farms.

"I often describe Wagener as a bedroom community," Mrs. Jeffcoat said. "Ninety-five percent of our market commutes to other locations for employment." About 70 percent drive 40 miles or less to work, she said.

Much of Wagener's economic growth has come from one man's mission to improve the quality of life for his grandchildren. Tommy Willis, a self-described "poor country boy," said he "wanted something good for the place he calls home."

Within the last three years he has bought eight abandoned buildings, the majority of which now house retail and service-oriented businesses. An attorney, a vision clinic, a loan officer, a video rental, a beauty salon, a bargain store and a pizza restaurant are a few of the town's newest occupants.

"My goal is to have every building in town occupied," he said. "We're sitting on a gold mine here and not many people realize it."

Mr. Willis was referring to Wagener's being only 25 miles from Aiken, 33 miles from Columbia and easily accessible to each of the major interstates.

The labor pool is cheap, and land is abundant - both of which could help attract industries, he said.

"Each year the top half of the graduating class has no choice but to relocate for jobs. I am going to work hard to see that our kids can live and work in this area," Mr. Willis said.

A majority of the town's residents work for Savannah River Site, Owens Corning, Automatic Switch Co., Carolina Eastman and the U.S. Postal Service.

Wagener Manufacturing, which employs about 500 people, is the only major employer in the town itself.