HAMPTON - Anyone questioning how important the Nevamar plant has been to this small town's economy needs only to walk past its Elm Street entrance.
History of a plant
While the Nevamar plant has been a Hampton fixture for generations, change has been a constant:
1941: Plywood Plastics Corp. buys land for the plant from the town and the Branchville Railroad.
1942: The plan opens to make plywood and laminated plastics for building construction.
1951: Westinghouse buys the plant and folds it into its Micarta Division.
1970s: At its heyday, it employed about 1,200 and made components for the Navy, NASA and other clients.
1995: International Paper buys the plant.
2002: Kolhberg & Co. buy the plant and make laminates under the brand name "Nevamar."
2014: Now known as the "Nevamar plant," its owner Panolama Industries International, Inc. announces plans to consolidate manufacturing of its high-pressure laminate product lines at its Auburn, Maine plant.
There, they will see a historical marker put up two years ago. It notes the Plywood-Plastics Corp. opened the plant in 1942, and it "has been significant in the industry and economy of Hampton ever since."
Not far away stands a billboard declaring, "Your Dream Job is Here," adding, "Thank Our Industries for Providing Great Jobs in Hampton County."
And folks say that's largely what this plant did, at least until July 31.
That's when word broke that by year's end, this plant will close as its current owner consolidates its operations in Maine. Its approximately 200 workers face an uncertain future in a county and region that has seen higher than usual unemployment.
Mayor John Rhoden said the news "didn't really surprise us. It had been rumored for a good while, but you always hope things don't happen." What upset him most was that company officials didn't even give him a heads up, he said, adding, "I had to hear it through the grapevine."
When The Hampton County Guardian published its weekly issue Thursday, its lead headline was something else that Rhoden said as he talked about the news:
"We will survive!"
'It's going to hurt'
To get a different perspective on the news, walk across Elm Street during lunch hour at Rigdon's Fried Chicken.
The mom-and-pop eatery gets a lot of business from Nevamar employees, and most everyone is wondering how they might be impacted.
Heather Lawson, 29, has lived in Hampton all her life and said she was shocked by the news.
"I'm just hoping it won't affect our business," she said. "Hopefully, it won't hurt us."
Gloria Folks, who works with Lawson cooking chicken and assembling sandwiches, noted her late husband Robert worked at the plant for 45 years. Folks was not as optimistic as her co-worker.
"It's just going to hurt a lot of people, I think, with the economy the way it is," she said. "It's going to hurt a lot of businesses around here. They do a lot of ordering from us."
Terry Hires, 62, dropped by for lunch last week and said he has worked at the plant for 38 years. He said he had hoped to work at the plant until he retiring at age 66, but now that is uncertain.
Some might face layoffs as early as October, while other workers are expected to remain on the payroll through year's end. Hires said the company might keep a skeleton staff after that to look over the property. As a maintenance worker, he might qualify for that role.
"Everything is kind of up in the air right now," he said. "We can't say, 'This is this.' You want to try to get what you can till the end."
Big blow to a small town
If this part of South Carolina were more prosperous, the looming closure of the Nevamar plant might not be as big a deal, Hires said.
But there are fewer job opportunities here, and that's reflected in Hampton's demographics. This rural county has about 20,400 residents, down an estimated 3 percent from 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Last month, Hampton County's unemployment stood at 7.4 percent, well down from 10.3 percent in June 2013, but still 2 points higher than the state average.
About a quarter of its residents live either in the town of Hampton or in Varnville right next door.
"We're a small town. We know most everybody that's out there," Rhoden said of the plant, whose property tax bill makes up about 2 percent of the town's income.
While the county is marketing the plant, there is no deal on the horizon.
"Hopefully, they can find another buyer. I've heard rumors, but I don't want to say anything on that yet," Rhoden said. "It will be a big blow to the big businesses here, down to the small mom and pop."
Tackling the larger challenge
Hampton is one of six counties that's part of the SouthernCarolina Regional Development Alliance, a group formed in 1996 to help combat the region's economic challenge brought on by the downsizing of the Savannah River Site.
The alliance, which also includes Bamberg, Barnwell, Allendale, Jasper and Colleton counties, has been working with both the S.C. Department of Commerce and the county economic development offices to lure new jobs here.
Its director is Danny Black, former chairman of Barnwell County Council, who used to work at the Savannah River Site when it employed about 25,000.
Fewer than 10,000 work there today, and the region also suffers from two other trends: agriculture requiring fewer jobs and the long decline of the state's once-booming textile industry.
"The six counties are kind of broken," Black said, adding they also have some advantages, especially when looked at as a region. Those advantages include proximity to Interstate 95.
"We're always trying to position ourselves for new growth through product development and try to entice people to expand," Black added. "It's unfortunate in this (Nevamar) case that we don't have someone immediately ready" to take over the plant.
Still, the alliance has had some recent success here. The Dixie Poly-Drum Corp. is spending $1.1 million to rebuild its Yemassee plant built in 1984 but recently lost to a fire. And Progressive Packaging, Inc. of Simpsonville is opening a new distribution center here.
And the alliance has built a 50,000-square-foot spec industrial building not far from Exit 38 off Interstate 95. The building, which also lies near a railroad line, could be outfitted as a distribution center or for light manufacturing.
"The state put some money in too," he said. "We have shown that building several times already and have two outstanding firms that are looking at it. We're hoping."
But even if a new company arrives, it's unclear if it can replace all the jobs that might be lost.
"It's hard when you bring in stuff. You have these wonderful celebrations for getting them here, and then someone else leaves so it seems kind of stagnant at times," Black said. "We just have to go out and diversify our economy and we're doing that."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.