On Feb. 5, Berkeley County’s new economic development director Barry Jurs was working in his office when he received a call from the state Commerce Department.
“We want you and the folks from Santee Cooper to come to Columbia to talk about a big project for Berkeley County,” Jurs remembers the Commerce official saying. “We were there the next day.”
They had no idea what it was.
When Jurs found out it was Volvo looking to build its first car plant in the U.S., he gleefully chuckled of his reaction, “Excitement was one word.” Then he said, “Let’s get it done.”
On his way home, he called newly elected Supervisor Bill Peagler to tell him the news.
His reaction: “It’s kind of like the child that finds the biggest box under the Christmas tree. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Peagler’s elation was tempered by nervousness since he knew they were competing with a site near Savannah. “It wasn’t ours to have. It was ours to earn. It was a very grueling and arduous and competitive process,” he remembered.
The original site being considered wasn’t even in Berkeley County, but in neighboring Dorchester County, directly across Interstate 26 from the 6,800-acre Camp Hall tract, in Ridgeville Commerce Park.
“As officials started going through the process, the project outgrew the Ridgeville site,” Jurs said.
After Jurs’ call on the way home from Columbia soaked in, Peagler wondered what a business like that was looking for and what the county had to offer.
Being new on the job, he didn’t know much about incentives. But he knew that Jurs, who came to Berkeley County government, where he once worked in mapping, from state-owned utility Santee Cooper, where he worked in economic development, was familiar with recruitment tactics. Jurs, along with economic development officials Sam Bennett and Josh Kay of Santee Cooper, “tuned us into what we were looking at and how we should bring this business here,” Peagler said.
When Gov. Nikki Haley and Commerce officials met with Volvo officials in New York City a few weeks before the May 11 announcement, Peagler was there, too.
He isn’t sure if anything he said swayed executives in their decision, but he told them: “From Feb. 5 to now, you have been a priority and you will continue to be a priority.” He added, “They seemed to be impressed with that.”
Peagler said, “They asked for a lot of information at one time. Our group responded even if it required coming in on the weekends. If they asked for something, we didn’t say, ‘We’ll try to get it to you.’ We said, ‘We’ll have it for you.’ ”
At one point, he thought Jurs was working for somebody else because he had not seen him in a while.
Jurs said he was darting all over the place, trying to nail down the finer points to bring the deal home.
“We had a lot of meetings,” Peagler said. “It was a flow that started and never stopped.”
He also said Volvo officials expressed concern about how the people living near the forested tract would react to the prospect of a big industry in their backyards.
Peagler said he skipped a county picnic in mid-April to drive around the rural area and talk with people who lived there. Jurs rode with him.
“I thought this was more important,” Peagler said.
They didn’t tell community residents what might be coming, but they asked them their thoughts about a major industry building on the MeadWestvaco Corp.-owned land near their homes.
“They were accepting,” he said. “We had no adversarial reactions.”
Peagler said he mentioned the ride through the rural communities and the neighbors’ reactions when he met with Volvo officials in New York and they seemed to perk up. “Whether that had something to do with the ultimate decision, I don’t know.”
Also helping to assuage any reservations was a development agreement on the site reached two years ago between the county, the landowner and the neighborhoods around the tract.
The neighbors had agreed they would rather see industry than houses on the land and secured 300-foot buffers between their property and any future industry. The rural Lebanon community, with its bucolic farmlands, also secured assurance that no entrance to any new factory would have access from Cypress Campground or Lebanon roads, which run through their idyllic properties.
Those buffers might be expanded to 1,000 feet or more now that they know who the industry is, Peagler said.
“Our purpose in meeting with the people out there was to assure them that the agreement would be honored,” Jurs said.
The major access to the property will be a new interchange on I-26 between the Cypress Campground Road overpass and S.C. Highway 27. The site also will have an access point on the northern side to U.S. 176 and another on S.C. 27 near the Pringletown community. Water and sewer lines run along I-26 to serve the tract. A rail spur could connect to Ridgeville, where the Norfolk Southern line now carries BMWs made in the Upstate to the Port of Charleston. That will require a separate overpass over I-26, Jurs said. An alternative rail connection by CSX is being considered as well.
A Santee Cooper transmission line cuts through the tract, which is served in various parcels by the state-owned utility, Berkeley Electric and Edisto Electric. Edisto will serve the first 575-acre phase of the project closest to Cypress Campground Road and I-26.
The workforce is expected to come from a 60-mile radius around the property. That includes 11 counties, many of them in the poverty belt along I-95.
“We just changed the face of Berkeley County for everyone and for future generations to come,” Peagler said. “We now have opportunities where we didn’t have them before.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.