BMW's role in Charleston

Port of Charleston is used for 70-75% of all exports from BMW's Greer plant.

Automaker primarily uses State Ports Authority's Columbus Street Terminal, which moves roughly 200,000 SUVs yearly.

SPA's Wando Welch Terminal is SPA's primary facility for handling BMW's vehicle-producing materials.

Wando Welch Terminal used to export as many as 2,000 vehicles a year in containers, which are sent to South America.

BMW is SPA's top port user in terms of dollar value of cargo. In terms of weight, BMW has 92% of Charleston's export non-containerized cargo.

Source: State Ports Authority

One of the engines that drives the Port of Charleston is about to ramp up production in the Upstate again.

X7 SUV

The X7 is the latest model for BMW's X-label.

Model is supposed to be larger than the X5 model. The crossover model is expected to include features such as three-row seating, according to trade publications.

It's being widely reported that German automaker BMW will announce on Friday that it will make a new SUV in Spartanburg County, its only U.S. assembly plant.

Made in Greer

Most of BMW's X-label vehicles are produced in Greer:

X3: Compact, entry-level SUV that debuted in 2003

X4: A compact crossover known for its coupe-like roof line. Debuting this year.

X5: Mid-size SUV, which made its debut in 1999.

X6: Mid-size crossover that debuted in 2006.

Source: BMW

That will mean more business for the State Ports Authority's Charleston area terminals, which are used to ship the vehicles overseas. A source close to the maritime industry said that the announcement will mean thousands of more vehicles will be moved through the terminals each year.

Norbert Reithofer, chief executive officer of BMW AG, is scheduled to be at the Greer plant on Friday to announce an expansion of "its commitment in the USA," according to an invitation to the event.

The visit comes amid reports by The Wall Street Journal and Handelsblatt, a German business newspaper, saying BMW is expected to build its new X7 SUV there.

An additional line could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in additional investments for BMW's Greer plant. BMW spent $900 million on the South Carolina plant between 2012 and 2014 to make its X4 small SUV, which is to hit U.S. showrooms this year, according to the Journal.

It could take two to three years to expand the plant, meaning the X7 likely would not make it to showrooms until 2017 or 2018, according to Automobile magazine.

Such an investment could add more workforce to the Greer's plant of 7,000 workers and swell production to 400,000 vehicles, according to published reports.

Charleston benefits

BMW's growth also means more work for support markets, such as suppliers and Charleston's maritime community.

"The volume of business that BMW conducts in the state of South Carolina supports an incredible array of jobs, from the ocean transport of parts required for manufacturing as well as the finished product," said Pam Zaresk, president of the Maritime Association of South Carolina.

The Munich-based company opened the plant in Greer 20 years ago this fall. In addition to the X4, the BMW campus produces many of the X-label SUV's, including X3, X5 and X6 models.

The plant turned out about 300,000 sport utility vehicles last year.

Many of those automobiles are hauled on rail cars to the Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston, making BMW one of biggest export customers at the Port of Charleston. The SPA has reported that BMW ships about 200,000 vehicles annually through Columbus Street to overseas destinations.

The automaker has been steadily growing its footprint in South Carolina, some with the help of the SPA.

One of the latest examples is the SPA's so-called inland port railyard that recently opened near Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. The facility led to BMW building a 413,000-square-foot new export center nearby. The inland port allows BMW to haul imported auto parts from Charleston by rail instead of by truck along Interstate 26.

In 2011, the automaker's long-term growth plans prompted the SPA to move all BMW export operations from Union Pier terminal in downtown Charleston to the larger Columbus Street terminal for added capacity.

The automaker was also under consideration for using other SPA terminals, such as Veterans and North Charleston, but nothing came of those plans.

BMW also exports up to 2,000 SUVs a year by way of 40-foot-long containers from the SPA's Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

The company used the shipping boxes because some South America markets don't immediately have capabilities to roll vehicles from car carriers.

Zaresk said the company is a major asset for Charleston's maritime community, and has shown the potential of the operations.

"There's hardly any aspect of the maritime transportation industry that doesn't benefit from BMW's operations," Zaresk said. "There's also little question that when a company with the reputation that BMW has for excellence chooses to conduct its business in our state, it's a testament to the effectiveness of our maritime businesses and attracts even more business."

The automaker's arrival in the 1990s helped South Carolina offset losses in textile and other industries. It has been seen as a catalyst for the arrival of other large companies, including Boeing, said Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner of Charlotte.

"BMW's continued expansion in South Carolina has been one of the most important factors driving the transition of the state's economy away from its historic dependence on lower skilled and generally lower paying manufacturing and services jobs to more highly skilled and more highly valued jobs," Vitner said.

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, a former BMW executive, echoed similar thoughts, saying BMW has been a "catalyst in the growth of the state's automotive industry."

"You see a similar trend in aerospace today, with announcements in that industry happening across the state," he said. "Their presence here has done a lot to change the way we think about ourselves; it's a point of pride for South Carolinians. All around the world, when you spot one of these cars, it's a thrill to know that it was built here in South Carolina."

Plans underway

Reithofer and other BMW officials have declined to comment about the reports of the X7.

Reithofer last week did tout the growth of the U.S. market and that the company is "evaluating the possibility of increasing capacity in the U.S."

A site plan BMW filed with the Spartanburg County Planning and Development Department details plans to build a 675,000-square-foot body shop, BMW's third on the campus, near the intersection of Interstate 85 and Brockman McClimon Road, according to The Greenville News.

The plans also show a 371-space expansion of an existing employee parking lot, a new road onto the campus and space for a future "energy center."

Steve Wilson, a spokesman for BMW Manufacturing Co., declined to comment about whether the plans were related to what the company plans to announce.

Reihofer is scheduled to be joined in Greer by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Gov. Nikki Haley, SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome and other invited guests. The international event will be streamed live online starting around 1 p.m.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.