Originally created 08/31/97

Aiken had industrial park ready



GRANITEVILLE -- When the exploratory fax came from Fantus Consultants in April, inquiring about a site for an unnamed industry, Aiken County was ready for it.

From that point on, things moved fast in what Fred Humes called a "quick one."

Two months later, Gov. David Beasley, Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young and Mr. Humes knew Bridgestone/Firestone was just a hair's breadth away from locating a $435 million tire-manufacturing plant in Aiken County.

But as the director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership knew, for Mr. Humes was in on it, the real beginnings of Aiken County's economic coup took place some three years ago in a meeting of four elected officials from Horse Creek Valley.

Although the Bridgestone/Firestone factory is too big to go in Sage Mill Industrial Park as it exists today, that facility was the principal drawing card. Aiken County built it, and indeed the Japan-based international corporation came.

"Three years ago, we had a dream of an industrial park for Aiken County," said Aiken County Council member Joel Randall, a resident of Graniteville whose council district also includes Warrenville and Gloverville.

"We knew we needed this kind of facility to draw industry to the county and we made a commitment to do it back in 1994," Mr. Randall said.

The meetings were bipartisan, including state Sen. Tommy Moore and Aiken County Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie, both Democrats, and Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young and Mr. Randall, both Republicans. The four met twice to discuss the need for the facility and how it could be accomplished.

They invited Mr. Humes to their next meeting and the plan began to take shape, Mr. Randall said.

Mr. Moore, however, had laid the groundwork earlier in a bond bill passed by the General Assembly in 1988.

"I put money in the bond bill for an Aiken County project," he said."I didn't know exactly what it was going to be at that time but when we looked around and saw the mills in Bath and Clearwater closing and anticipating downsizing at SRS, we knew we had to do something."

The drastic downsizing at SRS began in 1993, and by 1994, plans were laid to construct Sage Mill Industrial Park on Bettis Academy Road just outside of Graniteville.

"We all knew we needed to put together a package for Aiken County and the entire county council came together on this and worked with us on the state level to get it done," Mr. Moore said.

Sage Mill Industrial Park, with 1,100 acres, was completed in May 1996, said Joan Wilson, assistant county administrator. Construction of facilities for its first tenant SKF, a Swedish Company that produces auto parts, is finished, and facilities for its second, an Avondale distribution center, is now under way.

But the big one, the 1.5-million-square-foot Bridgestone/Firestone passenger and light truck tire manufacturing plant, will be located across Bettis Academy Road in what Sage Mill Project Engineer Allen Wertz has dubbed "Sage Mill East".

"We first thought the facility would require only 400 acres and could go into Sage Mill, but the configuration of the plant kept changing, and pretty soon we couldn't fit it in the present park and had to put it across the road," Mr. Young said.

Now all that remains is tying up loose ends, which is expected to be done at a special meeting of Aiken County Council to be held Tuesday, Mrs. Wilson said. At that time, the council is expected to take up several ordinances, including a fee in lieu of taxes agreement.

Mr. Humes said the incentive package is standard for the state and includes job tax credits that could reach as high as $5,500 per worker through a multicounty agreement with Edgefield County and construction of infrastructure for the facility.

Although located in Aiken County about 1 1/2 miles from the Edgefield County line, Sage Mill is a multicounty industrial park under an agreement sponsored by the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership.

Both counties must approve the fee in lieu of taxes, and Edgefield County stands to gain about 1 percent of the fees paid by Bridgestone/Firestone.

"When we work as a team, everybody wins. And South Carolina has won big," said state Secretary of Commerce Robert V. Royall. "Bridgestone/Firestone's $435 million investment and 800 new jobs speak loud and clear that South Carolina has the ability to attract the world's best high-tech industries."