PLUM BRANCH — Charles Jennings steps up on the covered front porch of what was Bracknell’s general store.
He gestures toward one window, a second one, then a third, and finally points upstairs.
“This was the women’s department. This was the men’s. This was a supermarket, and upstairs was appliances.” And just down the road sat a bustling cotton gin.
He waves one hand across an area in front of the empty store.
“This used to be thriving. People from all over the county came out here. I shopped there as a kid. It was like going to a Walmart.”
That was in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Now, it’s a ghost town,” except for a post office and a couple of businesses, he says.
Farther south along State Highway 28 is Parksville, which except for its post office, also appears as a ghost town.
The remnants of a bygone economy reflect the tough reality facing McCormick County today and the 25 other rural counties of Forgotten South Carolina, counties left behind in recent decades as prosperity took off in much of the state’s metropolitan and coastal areas.
For McCormick, the state’s smallest county with barely 10,000 people, the barriers to prosperity are obvious:
The county lies 40 miles from the nearest interstate highway.
Not a single inch of four-lane highway touches the county.
The Sumter National Forest covers 93 percent of the county.
About two-thirds of the residents are retired.
The county’s bleak economic picture came into clear focus as Gov. Nikki Haley has traveled the state in recent months touting her administration’s success at bringing new industries and industrial expansions all across the state.
She boasts of some 254 projects with more than 35,400 projected jobs and nearly $9 billion in capital investment.
Haley says those jobs and industries have gone to 45 of the state’s counties.
That leaves out just one — McCormick.
Turning bleak into bright
The first time Haley pointed out that only one county had not directly benefited from her “jobs, jobs, jobs” goal was earlier this year at a rural economies meeting in Aiken.
Charles Jennings, McCormick County Council chairman, sat among those in attendance.
He recalls that Haley didn’t initially name the lone county. So he let everyone there know that he is from McCormick and that the county is looking for Haley to bring some jobs there. Jennings says Haley pointed to one of her Commerce Department officials and told him “you have to get to work.”
That’s exactly what’s happened, Jennings and County Administrator Columbus Stephens say. They have met with Commerce officials a couple of times since then to map strategy and lay groundwork.
“She’s serious about bringing some jobs here,” Jennings says of Haley.
The county is one of the top performing counties in the state’s Work Ready Communities effort to train workers to be job-ready for new industry. The county government also recognized that it might have shot itself in the foot during the previous year’s budget when it cut off funds for a director of economic development in a cost-saving move.
Now, Council has returned enough money to hire a half-time development director. Stephens hopes to have that person on board soon.
In the meantime, Stephens says, the county has worked with the Milliken Company’s local air bag textile plant to make available a huge part of its unused manufacturing building as a site-ready place for a new industry.
The county also is working to build a shell building to lure a new manufacturer.
McCormick County last experienced an economic boom in the 1850s when gold was mined where the town of McCormick now stands.
Visitors can still try their hand at panning for gold at the old mine, which the county’s namesake, Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper, purchased in 1969 in a futile effort to find another rich vein of gold.
A little makes a big difference
Shaaron Kohl, owner of the Red Rooster, an art and antiques emporium in downtown McCormick, said she believes part of the economic problem is that “some people in authority want to keep the county the way it is.”
Mary Bleakley, a former head of the county’s planning commission, nodded in agreement and said the county has laid the groundwork for improved development, including adopting countywide zoning. All that’s missing, she says, is a concerted effort by county government to promote development with “vision and purpose” to allow for controlled growth that preserves the county’s rural quality of life but takes advantage of its opportunities for boating, fishing, hunting, hiking and golf.
That’s what Jennings and Stephens say they want too.
While they don’t like the fact that McCormick is the only county in the state with no new industries under Haley’s administration, the notoriety won Haley’s attention and the focus of state economic recruiters.
The county’s small population means that it wouldn’t take many new jobs to make a big difference. The county’s workforce numbers 3,357 with an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, almost 50 percent higher than the state’s. Still, that means just 389 people lack jobs.
Jennings and Stephens want to focus on enhancing and hopefully building existing business, which includes two textile manufacturers, an industry that has abandoned much of South Carolina. Both mills are shadows of what they once were but have stabilized from a job point of view, Jennings says.
The county’s real bread and butter is retirement homes and outdoor recreation, both largely due to 40-mile-long J. Strom Thurmond Lake, which forms the county’s border with Georgia.
The lake was created in 1954 when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savannah River for flood control and hydroelectric power.
Thurmond and two newer upriver lakes, Russell and Hartwell, form what is called “The Freshwater Coast,” and McCormick bills itself as the “Gem of the Freshwater Coast.”
The 120-mile-long lake complex serves as a magnet for vacationers and retirees who don’t want to go to Florida and like four mild seasons.
However, several recent years of dry weather had turned Thurmond Lake into a mud puddle, dropping as much as 15 feet off the lake’s average depth of 37 feet. It was so bad not long ago that you could walk much of the way across it, Jennings says.
But heavy rains this year have left it overflowing, and Jennings and Stephens hope that its beauty once again will lure tourists and new residents. The two have particular hope for Savannah Lake Village, which bills itself as a “lakefront sporting community.”
It already has some 1,200 vacation and retirement homes, and is designed to top out at 5,500, Jennings says.
Mary Bleakley and her husband Jim are among those lured to McCormick County by its outdoor recreation. They came from Michigan for golf years ago and retired to the county. “It’s a great place with a lot of potential,” Jim Bleakley says.
Not for down Main Street from the Red Rooster, Bob Weber operates the Pack Rat consignment and collectibles shop. He is a retiree who left Florida so his wife could be closer to family.
He’s not surprised McCormick hasn’t attracted new industry or jobs. “There’s no money here” because many of the residents exist on government subsidy checks, he says. “My best days are the first and the last of the month.”
The former public safety worker says the county’s only hope is the lake.
“If the lake’s down, everything is down.”
Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558
Downtown McCormick's Main Street sits next to an active CSX train track and has many different kinds of businesses. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 7/10/13×
An old clock stands on Main Street in McCormick to remind people that the town was founded in 1882 and to give them the time. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 7/10/13×
McCormick County Council Chairman Charles Jennings (Right) greets Louise Moten in front of a Main Street restaurant in downtown McCormick. This area of McCormick has many different businesses and restaurants.×
McCormick County Council Chairman Charles Jennings (Right) greets Louise Moten in front of a Main Street restaurant in downtown McCormick. This area of McCormick has many different businesses and restaurants. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 7/10/13×
McCormick County Council Chairman Charles Jennings greets Louise Moten in front of a Main Street restaurant in downtown McCormick. This area of McCormick has many different businesses and restaurants.×