Port access in Charleston played a major role in the decision to shift a television manufacturing plant from Asia to a rural corner of South Carolina, creating 500 jobs for the Palmetto State, the company's CEO said.
And it is Charleston's ability to connect companies to the "global marketplace" that is drawing such industry and making the port here a critical economic asset to the state, a S.C. maritime official said.
Element Electronics this month will officially open its TV manufacturing facility in Winnsboro. The 315,000-square-foot Fairfield County plant shifts Element's flat-screen television assembly from Asia to the U.S.
Element is one of a dozen companies the State Ports Authority has highlighted in a new report about its 2013 business recruiting efforts. The two-page briefing documents how the maritime agency helped state officials persuade companies to invest millions in new or expanded operations and add hundreds of jobs.
"The port is one of our state's most strategic assets," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA. "It offers connectivity to the global marketplace that influences many companies to locate or expand their operations in South Carolina."
Element Electronics on Feb. 24 will open its Winnsboro facility, a $7.5 million investment that will largely supply Walmart stores as part of the retail giant's "Made in America" campaign. The company's other U.S, customers include Target, Meijer and QVC, according to its website.
CEO Mike O'Shaughnessy said Element decided to "make a go" with its decision to assemble TVs in the U.S. after weighing a raft of issues, such as the workforce availability and access along the East Coast, where many of the retailers it supplies have distribution centers.
He said Element Electronics initially considered shipping its TVs from factories in Asia to California and using trains or trucks to send them east. In the end, he said, it proved a better fit to bypass the West Coast.
"All of our parts come from different parts of Asia, be it panels and power boards. We knew we had a lot of product coming and it would be very ineffective to bring it in from California and have it trucked to the East Coast," O'Shaughnessy said.
The company looked at several states to see whether they had the right transportation infrastructure to support the company's production needs, which rely on imported components from Asia. That's where the Port of Charleston came into play, O'Shaughnessy said. "Time is money, and they're acutely aware of our total cost approach and they've been a good partner with us," he said of the SPA.
The port is one of the bigger cogs in the wheel that works to lure new business to the state. Last year, South Carolina reported $5.4 billion in capital investment from new and expanding employers, according to S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt.
Incentives also are a factor, including credits designed to entice companies to increase their use of the port. Incentives in general have come under fire by groups like the S.C. Policy Council, which has argued that lawmakers should curb them given the state's budget woes.
State officials defend the use of tax breaks to attract jobs, saying the incentives are performance-based, thereby safeguarding taxpayers' investment.
Element Electronics, for example, received a $1.3 million rural infrastructure grant to offset site preparation costs and job development credits based on how many workers it hires.
The SPA report points to its other successes from last year, like Keer Group, which received a $4 million infrastructure grant and job development credits.
The Chinese textile manufacturer plans to spend $218 million in Lancaster County and increase its payroll to more than 500 employees within five years at its first U.S. facility, which will export finished goods through the Port of Charleston.
The SPA also highlighted some local port-driven investments, including Daimler AG. The German automaker is expanding and adding dozens of new jobs at its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van plant in North Charleston, where workers assemble imported vehicle parts from Europe.
Another is specialty foods importer and exporter Tides Enterprises, which is retrofitting a former dairy plant on upper Meeting Street on the Charleston peninsula.
The SPA said its newest business recruiting tool is its "inland" port, which opened late last year in Spartanburg County. The 100-acre facility is where shipping containers are transferred between trucks and Norfolk Southern rail cars running to and from Charleston.
While new, the Upstate cargo terminal also has helped with luring more business, according to the SPA's report. It prompted automaker BMW to build a 413,000-square-foot new export center nearby for Greer-made vehicles that will get shipped overseas through the port's Columbus Street Terminal.
Also, Divatex Home Fashions, which plans to add 75 new jobs in Spartanburg County, has said it will use the inland port to move its goods.
Newsome said the state's recruitment of manufacturers and product distributors helped the maritime agency increase container volume by 9 percent in 2013.
And it's looking to push that figure higher as it seeks to bolster its share of business in the Southeast, one of the most competitive maritime markets in the nation. "Our 9 percent increase in volume last fiscal year is a testament to the growth of new business at our terminals, and we're committed to offering capable, competitive services to support the needs of our state's importers and exporters," Newsome said. "We're deepening our harbor and adding new facilities to foster the economic impact and growth these companies bring to our region."
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 or twitter.com/tyrichardsonPC.
A Sprinter van on the assembly line at the Daimler facility in North Charleston. The German automaker is expanding and adding dozens of new job at its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van plant here, where workers assemble imported vehicle parts from Europe.×