BARNWELL, S.C. - What was a soybean field this time last year is now an $8.3 million capital investment for Barnwell County.
Columbia-based Ducane Gas Grills Inc. dedicated its modern manufacturing facility Friday, giving VIPs, including South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, full access to tour the plant.
Mr. Hodges called the plant a "shining example" of the state's economic muscle.
Among the special guests were state and local economic officials - along with two bus loads of Ducane distributors.
"Without them we're back to a soybean field," said Chief Executive Officer John Ducate Jr.
Secretary of Commerce Charlie Way said the new facility is welcome given that current statistics show South Carolina's economy is cooling. "This gives me hope this year will be respectable," he said.
Barnwell Mayor Edward Lemon said the new project, near the county airport, keeps the tax base low and unemployment down. Ducane actually pays a fee in lieu of taxes, but the money keeps residents from having to chip in more. There has been no millage increase in the town since 1976.
Workers toiled while the dignitaries observed production inside the 160,000-square-foot facility, paid for with low-interest government bonds.
Sparks popped as machine operators stamped out sheet metal parts with the aid of gigantic equipment.
Assembly line workers completed "fire boxes" - the grill hoods that contain the food during cooking.
Further down the assembly chain, men and women packaged finished grills and grill kits.
Even with computer-aided state-of-the art machinery, production requires human expertise. Cleveland Kinard, a 26-year Ducane employee, was hard at work with a screwdriver, completing the body of the 5004 model.
Meanwhile, Richard Johnson supervised paint application in the $1.3 million spray booth, designed to reduce harmful emissions using nonvolatile chemicals.
Grill components, suspended from overhead hooks, cleared a series of cleansing, chemical baths. The parts continued into the spray booth, where jets coated them with powder-based paint. Mr. Johnson inspected them for quality before sending them to be `cooked' in a 475-degree oven.
The grill will be heated again at 800 degrees to test the durability of the paint jobs.
"Ten years from now I want it to look the same way," he said.
The company's slogan is "Buy your last grill first."
The long term is exactly what Ducane officials are planning for. Last year, the company sold its heating and air conditioning division, located in Blackville, to competitor Lennox International Inc.
Ducane's leadership says the sale gave it investment capital and allows the private, family-owned company to focus on its core business.
Although the transition resulted in the loss of 2 percent of the work force, 100 employees remain on board with Ducane. Ducane shut down production at the Blackville plant Dec. 15 and produced its first grill in the new location Jan. 11.
"That's the way we planned it," said site manager Frank Ducate.
Full production should build the work force up to at least 150 people, and the site manager said expansions during the next three years could add 75 more.
John Ducate declined to release sales figures, or even the company's competitive position in the marketplace, but he did reveal Ducane sold 9 million grills last year. He said demand is currently high. The company already has met 75 percent of its goal for February and March.
Ducane recently entered the "ultra premium" category, where prices for the cooking devices can reach $6,000.
John Ducate Jr. said the small but growing ultra premium category represents about 4 percent of sales. Ducane's full line has more than 70 different models.
Formerly Ducane Co., the business was founded in 1946 in Union City, N.J., a collaboration of four Ducate brothers. John Ducate Sr. is still involved with the company and was on hand for the dedication.
As a marketing tool, the name of the company was changed to Ducane for ease of pronunciation.
Ducane located production to Barnwell County in 1968 with the creation of the Blackville plant.
Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.