Walterboro - For several months, Brian Tennyson had no success finding a job in the Lowcountry to match his two decades as a military aviation mechanic.
The search recently ended for the 50-year-old veteran and Smoaks resident. Tennyson has been tapped as quality control and food safety coordinator at Crescent Dairy & Beverages, the first business to set up shop in the Colleton County Commerce Center off Interstate 95.
"This is great," Tennyson said about his new job. "I had 16 years of quality assurance in the military and have the right mindset. Learning the new machines and industry has been pretty exciting so far."
Tennyson is part of the growing workforce in Colleton County, a largely rural corner of the Lowcountry that sustained its share of job losses during the last recession. Today, local officials note that unemployment has been more than halved over the past four years.
It's been a long climb out of that hole since Colleton's jobless figure peaked at 14.6 percent in January 2010, roughly on par with many other rural S.C. counties at that time. The statewide unemployment rate then wasn't much better: 12.5 percent.
In April, Colleton's unemployment rate had fallen to 6 percent, down from 9.4 percent in the same month a year ago.
The county's job gains are helped by new employers like Crescent Dairy and textilemaker Sarla Performance Fibers, in addition to payroll additions at existing businesses, local officials said.
"The economy has awakened, and we are now seeing more prospect activity and also been fortunate enough to have a couple of companies choose Colleton County to locate," said Heyward Horton, executive director of the Colleton County Economic Alliance.
There's also been some help from a $3 million job-training center, which recently received a national work-ready certification. Horton said that helps recruitment efforts because it shows the area is making efforts to prepare workers for future jobs.
Xavier Wilder is one example. The 20-year-old Islandton resident is among the first graduates of a new welding program. Wilder said he enjoyed the hands-on approach. "My grandfather was a welder and I thought I would try it, so I decided to do this," Wilder said. "I graduated high school and have been looking for work, but really couldn't find any."
A centerpiece of the county's job recruitment sales pitch is its Commerce Center, a 260-acre business park near Exit 62 on U.S. Interstate 95.
The county fast-forwarded work on the property during the last economic downturn, It invested $2.67 million for the construction of a 100,000-square-foot building based on the "build it and they will come" theory. The bet paid off in 2012, when Crescent Dairy purchased the property.
Today, crews are putting final touches to a second 100,000-square-foot building that Horton said could be spoken for if the county can seal a deal with what he described only as "an aerospace company." Also, crews are prepping land for a third building.
The new business park is one side of the economic development coin in Colleton.
Like other rural areas, the county is pockmarked with the darkened remains of once-humming manufacturing sites that were mothballed in the last recession, or earlier. A noted loss for Colleton was Castalloy, an alloy producer that closed in 2010.
At the same time, Colleton isn't wealthy, making it more difficult to build the infrastructure that businesses want and need. Horton said the county has "gone far and beyond what is needed to invest in itself," but he acknowledged the limitations.
"I think if we had more financial resource opportunities, we could do more," he said. "I would like to get another business park off the ground, and we will get there, but if we had the resources to do it, we would. We see the wave coming, and we want to be able to catch that wave."
Horton is a former Charleston industrial recruiter who took the job in Walterboro in 2011. He sells Colleton as an ideal location for industry and distribution centers, citing its proximity to the interstate system and nearby ports in Charleston and Savannah.
Colleton has had a bruised image in recent years, seen by many outsiders as a largely rural area that has been battered with some gang-related violence.
County Administrator Kevin Griffin says proximity and quality of life are key factors in attracting new business.
"We've also done things with the quality of life here and to get the community to show much better," Griffin said.
In addition to the new business park, improvements include enhancements to the Lowcountry Regional Airport in Walterboro. There's also been efforts to revitalize the county seat of Walterboro, including plans to turn the old Brown Hardware building into a commercial kitchen incubator for workers seeking to enter the food industry.
Improvements on the jobs side come in part with help from state funds.
Crescent Dairy, for example, received a $1 million state grant to help with the purchase and customization of the spec building, said Allison Skipper of the S.C. Department of Commerce.
The company, a subsidiary of Delaware-based CDBH Inc., is spending about $30 million, which includes the purchase of 25 acres and its building. The facility houses processing equipment that extends the shelf lives of sealed, unrefrigerated private-label beverages, in many cases for more than 12 months. The goods will be shipped through the Port of Charleston, said company representative Gabriel Pascual.
The company started testing production in May and plans to open as soon as this month, he said. Crescent has hired more than a dozen workers for its milk-production plant and the company plans to employ about 60 within five years, Pascual said.
"We chose this place for the 'people factor' and the willingness of the local and state authorities to work with us to facilitate this," Pascual said of choosing Colleton.
Another newcomer has helped ease the sting of a manufacturing loss. The former New York Wire plant, which halted operations in 2010, is home to Sarla Performance Fibers. The India-based textilemaker invested almost $14 million last year to open a yarn and thread factory in the 300,000-square-foot structure. It employs about 100.
The county jobs market is poised to strengthen with the recent announcment that Palmetto Aero, producer of sheetmetal fasteners and airframe components for the aerospace industry, is building a 77,000-square-foot hangar and buying two others at Lowcountry Regional Airport. The $2.5 million investment is expected to create 44 jobs, state officials said.
But Hank Amundson, workforce development director at the Lowcountry Council of Governments, said existing businesses are creating the bulk of the new jobs in Colleton. Among them: the Dayco rubber products plant and Glanbia, a sports beverage company. "Many companies have been adding more workers, but they've been doing it quietly as the market improves," he said.
New businesses like Sarla are helping generate work for existing companies like Paper Converters, which supplies the textile manufactuer with yarn spools.
Colleton also is likely getting a tidy boost from the rebounding jobs market in the neighboring Charleston region, said economist Steve Slifer of Daniel Island-based NumberNomics.
"There is no reason why it should just be Charleston benefiting from the economy," he said. "Companies want to move into this area and what happens is that Colleton County is close, cheaper, and it makes a degree of sense."