GRANITEVILLE - The North American Free Trade Agreement has been good for the textile industry in Aiken County, says Keith Hull, president of Avondale Apparel Fabrics in Graniteville.
Despite predictions of dire consequences for the U.S. textile industry in the months before NAFTA was passed, Mr. Hull says that has not been the case with Avondale.
In the 1 1/2 years since the company purchased the sprawling textile facility in Graniteville, Avondale has spent $60 million dollars to expand facilities and upgrade equipment. The company expects to spend another $140 million to modernize existing plants in Graniteville over the next two years.
"Our focus is not so much on expansion but on modernization," Mr. Hull told the Midland Valley Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
"Avondale is spending its capital dollars heavily, not in Mexico or outside the country, but in the United States, specifically in Graniteville," he said.
He emphasized, however, that most of the customers who buy the fabric produced in Graniteville are outside the United States. The bulk of Avondale's product goes to the labor-intensive apparel industry in Mexico that produces the end product for sale in the United States.
Avondale produces 2.5 million yards of denim and 2.7 million yards of cotton twill every week and alternates between first and second place in the U.S. market in sales of denim.
Since 1996, when Alabama-based Avondale purchased the Graniteville Co. from Triarc Companies, Avondale has expanded existing facilities to include a new greige weaving plant adjacent to the Swint Plant on Ascauga Lake Road scheduled for completion this summer. In addition, production has begun at the new Horse Creek Plant on Bettis Academy Road, which Mr. Hull described as the most modern textile plant in the world."
Although he maintains that NAFTA "has made it easier to manufacture textile fabrics in the United States," Avondale's upgrading and expansion will not necessarily result in additional jobs for the area.
He indicated that textile manufacturing in the United States is a "high tech product" and thus less labor intensive.
"Looms are not looms anymore. They're weaving machines and each is computerized so if anything happens, that computer tells you exactly what has happened," he said.
The modern textile plant in this country requires fewer but more highly trained workers but many of the jobs in the low tech and labor intensive apparel industry have moved outside the United States.