COLUMBIA — The S.C. Department of Commerce says having ready to develop industrial sites is critical to luring new industry to the state.

“Site location decisions are being made faster than ever due to aggressive business timelines,” said Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark.

In an attempt to up the inventory of industrial acreage on hand, the agency is taking applications for a new program. The state already identifies more than 64,000 acres worth of potential sites, in various stages of development, according to Commerce's online site locator.

The department has run a certification program before. About 40 percent of new industry locations announced in the state have been on certified sites, said Program Director Jennifer Druce, though she did not know the vacancy rate at the various sites.

The program's latest iteration is meant to be customized, encourage more site engineering and considers factors like available workforce. Landowners can apply for a Palmetto Sites designation this year through Oct. 11, with applications being submitted twice annually in following years.

The Commerce Department isn’t worried. By encouraging development of more sites it could lead to a smattering of half-empty industrial parks around the state, Clark said.

"The concern would be not doing it and then not being as well-positioned for success," she said.

"That's going to happen," Druce said of some sites going undeveloped. "All we can do is be prepared for when a company is looking in particular community."

Commerce identifies 144 tracts of 200 acres or more across the state. Of those, 75 are identified as industrial parks. There are 20 tracts of more than 1,000 acres, including Santee Cooper's Camp Hall site near the new Volvo plant.

There are also another 475 sites with less than 200 acres.

Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, called it a “smart move” by Commerce to have sites ready to go.

"I think there's a bit of pent up demand," he said, as many manufacturers put off expansion plans amid renegotiation of foreign trade deals with China, Canada and Mexico by the Trump administration.

Talks with China have dragged on for more than 18 months. A deal with Canada and Mexico still needs congressional approval.

"If we do get some certainty on trade, then we’re likely see more manufacturing move forward with expansion," Vitner said.

The downside is, even with sites identified, development may not occur as quickly as a community wants.

“It’s a tough decision,” Vitner said. “A lot of people are concerned they may lose their ability to attract a major company if they don’t have control of a site. Developable land is a scarce commodity."

That's why Richland County spent $26 million on more than 1,300 interstate frontage acres in Blythewood to develop a new business park.

County Economic Development Director Jeff Ruble said they purchased the property knowing it may not be filled for some time to ensure it wouldn't be overtaken by nearby residential or commercial building.

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The county still has several hundred acres available in a number of other industrial parks it controls — 290 acres and 43 acres at two parks southeast of Columbia, where China Jushi is developing its plant, as well as 90 acres and 70 acres in two parks north of town, where Charter NEX Films located.

"I think you have to take the long view," Ruble said. "That’s just good planning. We need better planning in the state."

Activity in the industrial real estate market has been good, said Dave Mathews a commercial Realtor for Colliers International. His firm was responsible for leasing e-cigarette maker Juul its Lexington County location earlier this summer.

The vacancy rate of industrial buildings in central South Carolina was only 5.82 percent in the second quarter, Mathews said.

"It's extremely hard to find 200,000-square-foot spaces because only a few people are building them," he said.

Mathews points to speculative building as a sign of the market's health. In Lexington County, his firm leased a portion of a 200,000-square-foot building still being constructed in one of the county's industrial parks. He expects the remaining square footage to be gone in the next couple weeks.

"The market has gotten really tight," he said. "If there were more available, I think it would lease up."

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.