Changing tides: Two decades after Navy leaves, North Charleston base a hive of business activity

Dye-sub infusing, silk screening and quality control are all completed on-site at sportswear manufacturer Vapor Apparel’s North Charleston space. Jimmy Dendy examines a screen here.

Berthed between the Clemson University Restoration Institute, the Navy Yard Officers’ Quarters Historic District, and Riverfront Park, the former Charleston Naval Base looks, at first glance, like you would expect a former military shipyard to appear. Beige hangar-like structures stand in formation across the street from utilitarian office buildings. Vintage prefab huts sit together on the river’s edge. But like the ships that have docked there since 1901, there’s much more at work just below the surface.

A careful look reveals signs of life coursing through the old yard. Parking lots overflow with fleets of modern cars. Along the waterfront, miles of security fencing hint at services rendered for top-secret clients. At a nearby storehouse, overhead doors have been thrown open to reveal Humvees. Behind the doors of another rest rows and rows of discounted rustic-chic furniture. A hot dog vendor has even moored his cart outside a rehabbed 1930s warehouse. A crosswalk turns up gents covered in suits as well as men suited in coveralls. The former base has come a long ways since the days when the Navy occupied it.

New Life

The 1993 announcement of the impending closure of the Charleston Naval Base and Naval Shipyard threatened to sink the tri-county area. Only a decade earlier, the base registered as the third largest naval home port in the country, helping float the region with some 36,700 military and civilian employees. By the official closure in 1996, an estimated 22,000 to 24,000 jobs — roughly a third of the local economy — would wash away. And economists predicted the unemployment rate might rise as high as 20 percent.

To help buoy the Lowcountry, the Chamber of Commerce created a committee known as BEST (Building Economic Solutions Together), placing at its helm North Charleston’s soon-to-be-mayor Keith Summey. The committee called upon area businessmen to pitch ways to reuse the naval facilities so the region’s head would remain above water. And that’s when a trio of local shipbuilders tossed this city a life preserver.

Though industry competitors, Danny Rowland, then CEO of Metal Trades Inc., and Detyens Shipyards President Loy Stewart Sr., along with General Dynamics Electric Boat Division General Manager Dick Gregory, sat down together to wade through ideas for privatizing the shipyard. “What we had here wasn’t a shipyard, but a manufacturing facility with ship repair capabilities,”

explains Rowland. “So we proposed creating an incubator for a cluster of manufacturing companies that would attract industrial work and commercial vessels to the yard.” And so under their direction, the former Naval Shipyard’s anchor tenant, CMMC LLC was born.

Flood of business

Since surfacing 20 years ago, CMMC LLC, has witnessed a wave of growth transforming this once-large federal base into a collective base for small employers, and some of the earliest occupants are now flourishing. Formed in 1996 to provide on-site maintenance and repairs for Detyens, Shiptech America LLC, now pursues industrial maintenance for heavy equipment and has been awarded numerous multiyear government contracts, including three with Joint Base Charleston. Last fall, Excel Apparatus Services received a major accreditation from the Electrical Apparatus Service Association,

making the company one of only 35 in North America to have completed the rigorous certification.

“This year, we will have 40 companies on our campus,” says Rowland, who has handpicked every business on the former shipyard’s 110 acres. The family of organizations includes Detyens Shipyards, Cooper T. Smith, Collins Machine Works, Flotech valve repair, International Diving Institute commercial dive trainers, Moran tug operations, and Hydro-Stop waterproofing systems, as well as a handful of creative makers including Grey Dog Woodwork cabinet finishing, Kistler Design custom furniture, LulaKate bridal clothing and The Urban Electric Co. lighting fabricators.

This diverse cooperative provides a one-stop shop for manufacturing customers, giving shipyard tenants a collective competitive edge.

“It’s pretty collaborative out here,” says Gregg LoGuidice, co-owner of the Bourne Group, which manufactures signs and interior components for cruise ships. “There are lots of resources we can lean on, with small businesses that do what we need, be it subfabrication or welding.”

A commercial vessel

One of the base’s most attractive resources is the infrastructure itself.

“I’ve always been drawn to how well buildings were constructed 100 years ago, and our location echoes that at every turn,” says Dave Dawson, founder of The Urban Electric Co., which is housed in an imposing brick warehouse labeled Building 5. “The natural light, lofted ceilings, and exposed brick and beams foster an atmosphere of innovation and creativity that might not be the same without the character reference the building provides.”

LoGuidice also points to formidable warehouse space as his reason for setting up shop on the old base: “Ours is one of those 1930s buildings they just don’t build anymore, with big open space and lots of light situated by a dry dock.”

Just outside the shipyard gates, the arts design cooperative known as 10 Storehouse Row has also leveraged the base’s unique atmosphere. Its warehouse-turned-shared workspace has attracted a variety of tenants, including customized sportswear manufacturer Vapor Apparel, which has twice been named to the SC 25 Fastest

Growing Companies list.

“There’s something about an industrial tall ceiling,” muses founder Christopher Bernat. “Everyone feels more inspired.” He praises, too, the opportunity for collaboration.

“The café in our building is a great aggregation point for people to cross-pollinate. It’s a good white-collar-meets-blue-collar work zone.”

As a veteran and self-proclaimed history buff, Bernat recognizes that the mash up mirrors the mix of military and civilian staffers that once clocked in on these grounds.

Indeed, even in the face of revitalization, there’s a sense of time suspended on the former Charleston Naval Base.

“Several of our employees have either worked or had parents who worked on the property when it was still a functioning Navy base,” says Dawson. “I love that continuity.” N