Hoping to duplicate the success of its Upstate inland port, the State Ports Authority is breaking ground Friday on a second version aimed at providing a boost to the Pee Dee economy.
The new railed-served cargo hub in Dillon will use trains and trucks to move goods between the Port of Charleston and the busy U.S. Interstate 95 corridor.
The $40 million facility at the Tri-County Gateway Industrial Park is expected to open about a year from now and initially will handle about 45,000 cargo containers. Its three-year-old counterpart in Greer has exceeded expectations, handling 103,639 cargo moves in 2016 for customers such as discount retailer Dollar Tree, tire maker Michelin and German automaker BMW.
Eventually, the SPA hopes to boost capacity at the Dillon site to 220,000 cargo boxes annually as the area attracts new distribution centers and manufacturers.
Mark Vitner, an economist with Wells Fargo bank in Charlotte, said he is optimistic about the Dillon facility's potential.
"The success of the inland port in Greer has been much greater and has occurred much faster than I thought it would, even though they did have the advantage of having BMW and Michelin and a core of good companies," Vitner said. "I don't know that Dillon can exactly replicate the success they've had in the Upstate, but I see no reason why it won't be successful. I'm very encouraged by it."
The Dillon project aims to "expand opportunity and bring industrial diversity to the Pee Dee region and beyond," Tom Rice, the Republican Congressman whose district includes Dillon, said in a statement.
It's an area in need of diversification. Dillon County has one of the state's highest unemployment rates, registering 5.6 percent in December. Dillon County Council hopes the inland port spurs the creation of up to 1,500 jobs over the next five years, boosting the county's employment level by more than 10 percent.
“We believe the inland port will be a drawing card," Council Chairman Archie Scott told a local television station. "We believe the industries will come with it and more jobs will be available for our citizens. Once we have more jobs for the citizens, the people in the county can take care of their families and bills. They can be better providers."
The Greer facility has been a magnet for distribution centers as businesses look to capitalize on a Norfolk Southern rail line that links Charleston to an Upstate site within a one-day drive of 95 million consumers. Dollar Tree opened a 1.5 million-square-foot warehouse last year, and tire maker Michelin has plans to build a 3.3 million-square-foot distribution center. Other major customers include Eastman Chemical, Rite Aid and Adidas.
Harbor Freight Tools, which employs about 700 people at its 2-million-square-foot distribution center in Dillon, will be among the Pee Dee inland port's top customers. The discount tool retailer already accounts for roughly 10,000 cargo containers imported through Charleston each year and that amount could double once the Dillon site is operating.
Also, International Paper has said it is interested in using the inland port to move cargo from its mill in Riegelwood, N.C., to Charleston for export to Asian countries. The SPA has estimated those exports could account for as many as 19,000 cargo containers a year.
Other potential customers include distribution centers for QVC and Rooms to Go as well as area paper manufacturers and poultry producers.
The 163-acre Dillon port will be developed about 10 miles south of the North Carolina border. Initially, it will process one inbound and one outbound CSX train daily. The SPA, in partnership with the Jacksonville, Fla.-based rail hauler, plans to invest in a container storage area, a chassis yard, operations and maintenance facilities, and cranes that will transfer cargo containers between trains and trucks.
The SPA's board of directors approved the project in September, authorizing the maritime agency to borrow up to $35 million toward the cost.
Friday's groundbreaking will include statements from Rice, Gov. Henry McMaster and other elected officials, as well as executives with Harbor Freight Tools, CSX and the SPA.
Inland ports are becoming popular ways for maritime facilities to extend their reach and cargo bases. The Georgia Ports Authority, for example, is building an inland port served by CSX in Chatsworth near Interstate 75. Scheduled to open in 2018, it will be the Peach State's second inland port.