Joe King, executive director of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership, describes his county as “the economic engine of the Pee Dee region.”
Once a largely cotton-growing county, Florence's flat fields now bloom with factories, testimony to the community's success at business recruitment in an area generally devoid of it.
Part of the reason for that success lies in the county's focus on job-training capability.
Florence and many rural areas have created or expanded job-training centers designed to provide adult education for workers with limited education or the technical skills necessary for today's businesses.
Florence had a leg up on most rural communities because it is home to Francis Marion University. It also is home to Florence-Darlington Technical College, which provides virtually free job training for business through the readySC program available in all the state's tech colleges.
ReadySC, established in 1961, is one of the oldest such job-training programs in the nation. Its purpose is to lure industry by upgrading lacking educations, teaching technical skills, and training workers for the jobs industries need.
“We've got a lot of tools,” King said.
He points to the region's latest step to attract new business: Creation in late 2007 of the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology at Florence-Darlington Tech.
The idea came from Charles W. Gould, the college's president, who wanted to push for more high-tech manufacturing in the Pee Dee, especially start-up tech companies.
The institute works as a for-profit adjunct of the technical college to provide training for high-end technical, manufacturing and management. It also offers facilities and equipment for start-ups to produce their product.
The intent is to serve as a magnet for new industry and to present Florence as a start-up incubator and an eight-state training center.
King says the Great Recession has been “kind of a blip” for Florence in business recruitment. Despite fear that the recession would force the closing of Florence's Roche pharmaceuticals plant, the company stayed put, moving only about 30 development jobs to a different state.
In addition, King said, the county has seen 16 businesses expand in or move to Florence. That includes Otis Elevator, which in 2011 announced it would be consolidating its new “green” elevator manufacturing in the Pee Dee city, bringing 360 jobs.
Company officials said the plant would “become Otis' manufacturing center of excellence for the U.S. and Canada.”
The recession may have been a blip in Florence County, but for much of the surrounding Pee Dee counties and the remaining I-95 Corridor, it came as a sucker punch.
In late 2010, a Commerce Department study used the economic success of Florence and a couple other I-95 area counties, notably Orangeburg and Dorchester, to tout the region's and the state's efforts to spur industry.
Commerce sought to counteract negative publicity from the 2005 documentary “Corridor of Shame” and the national focus on the corridor's problems in 2009 when an eighth-grader from Dillon County wrote Congress about her school's dilapidated condition.
President Barack Obama later invited the student, Ty'Sheoma Bethea, to a speech he gave to Congress. And while the state provided no new assistance, $40 million in federal grants and loans later flowed to Dillon for a new middle school and to pay for other school projects.
The Commerce study, issued in September, 2010, noted that it was conducted to present “an accurate and unbiased account of economic development in the I-95 corridor.”
The report went on to cite some 11,200 jobs and $2.1 billion in capital investment announced for those counties from 2006 through 2009.
The report neglected to point out that some of that didn't happen, that some companies came and left, and that other companies in the corridor at the time closed.
The report failed to note that unemployment in the corridor soared from a range of 7-12 percent in 2006 to a range of 10 -21 percent in 2009. Unemployment in many of the counties still runs about 50 percent higher than the state.
For example, Clarendon County Economic Development Director John Truluck said the county lost six employers and 650 jobs during the recession. That included its largest employer, Federal-Mogul, an automotive supplier, which closed in late 2009, taking 350 jobs.
Of the five companies Commerce listed as announcing new operations in Clarendon from 2006 through 2009, two opened, bringing in 160 jobs, one foundered, one opened and closed and one built a plant but never started operations, Truluck said, The last one is now expected to start up this year. And last month a maker of replacement refrigerator filters said it would bring a factory and 60 new jobs.
At Francis Marion University in Florence, President Fred Carter, a former director of the state Budget and Control Board, describes the recession as a speeded-up version of what has been going on for years in the corridor — the region lost 42 percent of its manufacturing jobs during this century's first decade.
“That's the saga of the I-95 counties,” Carter said. “You can drive across the Pee Dee now and see the abandoned shells of factories brought in with those incentives.”
To turn that view around, Francis Marion and South Carolina State University released a report in 2009 that evaluated the problems of the I-95 Corridor and offered solutions.
Francis Marion took on some of the recommendations, such as expanding medical access by launching, this year, a training program for nurse practitioners and by working with the USC School of Medicine to begin planning a physician assistant program.
The university also helped recruit Teach for America in 2011 to place highly motivated young teachers in high-poverty schools. This year, 113 of the program's 10,000 teachers work in South Carolina schools, mainly in the Pee Dee.
The report's release came at the height of the Great Recession, and little has been done with most of the recommendations, many of which require state or local governmental action.
Along I-77 in the Mill Crescent between suburban York County and Columbia, the recession also took a toll.
Tiffany Harrison, director of economic development for Fairfield County, said the county lost four major plants and nearly 500 jobs, and picked up just 150 new manufacturing jobs
Harrison said the county took the downturn as an opportunity to prepare for the future.
In 2009, as the Great Recession officially, if not actually, ended, the county worked with Midlands Tech to open a “Quick Jobs” center in Winnsboro. The center provides residents with job training and adult education.
The county also is developing “shovel-ready” industrial parks and “speculative” buildings for potential industry.
Just up I-77 in Chester County, Development Director Karlisa Parker sounded a less cheery note. The Mill Crescent county lost 3,200 jobs between 2006 and 2009, mostly in textile jobs when Springs Industries closed, shutting down mills across Chester and Lancaster counties.
Chester's unemployment rate hit more than 21 percent as Parker grasped for ways to bring in new employers. But the economy has changed, she said. Big manufacturers with hundreds of jobs aren't out there as they once were. Now, economic recruiters see smaller, leaner companies with 25 to 50 jobs.
That may work out well for Chester, making it less dependant on one industry.
Parker scored several new companies and expansions of existing ones since Springs left, but she sees her main accomplishment as preparing the county for new businesses yet to come by professionalizing her office, working with the county and private businesses to set-up ”certified” site-ready, industrial parks and designing virtual factories that can be built to company specifications within four months.
Given the county's location between Columbia abnd Charlotte, Parker sees a lot of hope. “We feel our time will be here.”
Still, she can't shake sadness for the thousands of county residents who lost a way of life when Springs called her and set out a firm schedule for shuttering its mills, the ghosts of which loom along Chester's roads.
The county's unemployment has dropped dramatically since, to 13 percent. That's half again higher than the state's, but heading in the right direction - down, Parker said.
Her voice turned flat. “We're nowhere near getting back what we lost.”