Bridgestone plans 850 jobs in Aiken

Graniteville residents are optimistic about future jobs from the Bridgestone expansion nearby. Nette Whitlock opened Nette’s Flea Market in Graniteville in January. She said many of her customers are out of work.

GRANITEVILLE -- Bridgestone Americas Inc. announced plans Wednesday to invest more than 1 billion in two projects in Aiken County, creating more than 850 jobs by 2020.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based subsidiary of Japan-based Bridgestone Corp. plans to build a 1.5 million-square-foot radial tire plant in Aiken County, plus expand its existing light-truck tire plant by 474,000 square feet.

That's in addition to a 266,000-square-foot expansion, announced in July, at the light truck tire plant off Interstate 20. All told, Bridgestone will invest $1.2 billion in the three projects.

Gov. Nikki Haley said it represents the largest initial capital investment by a company in South Carolina's history.

At least 80 percent of the new jobs are expected to be direct hires. The company contracts out its maintenance work.

The impact of the deal will reach the Charleston waterfront, which Bridgestone is expected to use to import raw materials, said state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston.

"The Port of Charleston will benefit mightily from the Bridgestone investment in Aiken," he said.

The State Ports Authority declined Wednesday to go into details about the impact on its business.

"Bridgestone is a client of the port currently, and we expect this will grow significantly," SPA spokesman Byron Miller said. "It's tremendous news for our state, and great new business for the port."

The value of the announcement eclipses Boeing's promise in 2009 to bring $750 million to the state -- previously the largest single industrial investment in state history. The aerospace company promised 3,800 jobs will be created at its newly opened 787 aircraft assembly plant in North Charleston.

Aiken County gave the Bridgestone 545 acres for the new plant, near the existing one, at a value of $10.5 million, plus a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes deal that locks in the millage rate for 40 years, county administrator Clay Killian said. The state provided $15.5 million in grants for site preparation and infrastructure, including $6 million to improve public roads near the facility, according to the Commerce Department.

Bridgestone's existing 13-year-old factory now employs 932 people directly and contracts with 200 more.

Nearly $895 million of the total investment will be spent on the new plant, which will make huge tires used in mining. One on display at the announcement stood 12 feet tall and weighed as much as several cars. The company currently makes the tires only in Japan.

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The tire maker believes it can more effectively respond to customer needs and growing global demand by adding a U.S. plant. Demand for the large, off-road radial tires is increasing as the need for mineral resources grows, the company said.

This "is a major strategic investment by the global Bridgestone Group to enhance its supply systems, improve its sourcing flexibility and further strengthen the Bridgestone Group's position as the global leader in the off-road radial tire segment," Bridgestone Americas CEO Gary Garfield said.

Hiring will begin in January. Training will require many workers, particularly supervisors, to go to Japan, he said. The first tire is expected to come off the line in spring 2014.

Wednesday's announcement involves an additional $211 million investment in Bridgestone's existing plant, beyond the $135 million announced in July, to meet a growing demand in light truck and sport utility vehicle tires. The new, more advanced tire-building machines will enable the company to more easily and quickly respond to shifts in market demand, the company said.

Construction is expected to begin in November. It will be completed in 2015.