Luring Volvo a complex, costly dance

The competition to land a manufacturer identified by lawmakers as Volvo dialed up considerably Thursday as a key South Carolina senator said he was asked to set aside up to $125 million to help close the deal and Georgia officials filed for a permit to lure a company believed to be the Swedish automaker.

S.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt asked weeks ago for the money to be set aside for an economic development project. Leatherman said Hitt did not reveal the name behind the project, but several lawmakers have said in recent days that it is Volvo.

Leatherman said he did not put the money in this week’s Senate budget bill because Gov. Nikki Haley told lawmakers she didn’t want it.

Meanwhile, a newly formed Georgia economic development agency — Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority — filed an application Thursday with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah for a permit to fill more than 125 acres of wetlands “to construct a mega-site manufacturing facility” believed to be Volvo. The so-called megasite is off Interstate 16 in Ellabell, less than 30 miles from the Port of Savannah.

The Georgia application comes on the heels of a wetlands permit application filed last week for property at the Camp Hall Commerce Park in Berkeley County, the South Carolina site Volvo reportedly is considering.

The S.C. Commerce Department last week organized a meeting of environmentalists and leaders from state and federal agencies to make sure they all are in agreement on the wetlands-mitigation plan. The meeting, held at Santee Cooper’s Wampee Conference Center in Pinopolis, took place one day before Berkeley County filed its April 16 application with the Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston.

Richard Darden, a special-projects manager with the Army Corps, said the wetlands permit application filed last week “is a top priority for Berkeley County and the state, and we are treating it as such.” Darden said the agency tries to process all permit applications within 120 days but this one probably will take less time because the county was “pretty darn comprehensive” with the information it submitted.

Timing could be crucial because Volvo has said it plans to announce its choice for the site by the end of next month. The automaker has not confirmed which sites it is considering.

Last week’s permit application in South Carolina appears to have prompted more jockeying by Georgia officials.

“It’s just like with any of these, every time we put something on the table, another state tries to one-up us,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. “I think Volvo knows, if they come to South Carolina, that we are good partners, that we have provided an answer to every question that they have, and that we look forward to working with them.”

Both states are promising employee training as part of their incentives packages. South Carolina has its ReadySC program, which trains workers for companies such as Boeing and Daimler through the state’s technical college system, while Georgia lawmakers recently approved $25 million for a workforce training center near Savannah.

And, increasingly, getting advance approval from environmental groups is a key to getting economic development projects on the fast track. The State Ports Authority, for example, spent $5 million this year to protect the Cooper River corridor in exchange for environmental groups’ buy-in on a Charleston Harbor deepening project.

Allison Skipper, spokeswoman for the state’s Commerce Department, said last week’s meeting in Pinopolis was “an opportunity for all stakeholders to get their questions answered.” The attendees included representatives from the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and groups such as the Coastal Conservation League and the Charleston Audubon Society. Hitt hosted the meeting and attendees also visited the Camp Hall site.

Skipper said a similar pre-application meeting was held between government agencies and conservationists before Boeing Co. announced its plans in 2009 to build a commercial airplane manufacturing site in North Charleston.

Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the permit application “looks solid to me.”

“We’ve had some discussions with the Department of Commerce and the mitigation package continues the trend of Boeing and the State Ports Authority of meeting the federal and state requirements and building on the excellent conservation work Audubon and the land trusts have done to establish a continuous greenbelt of protected habitat around the metropolitan region,” Beach said. “It’s definitely a win-win agreement.”

The application for the Camp Hall permit says it is for a large manufacturing facility that would employ up to 4,000 people over the next decade on a 2,800-acre parcel. The permit does not name the company, but states that it is an “advanced manufacturing and assembly facility” that will require the same type of transportation, distribution and logistics network as the automotive and aerospace industries.

The manufacturer is identified as “Project Soter” on the permit application. Soter is the spirit of safety in Greek mythology. Volvo cars have long been marketed for having a reputation for safety.

According to the permit application, the company initially would build a 575-acre manufacturing and production facility on the property, which is near Interstate 26 and within 28 miles of the Port of Charleston. The first phase would employ as many as 2,000 workers and would include administrative offices and a welcome center.

Depending on market conditions, a second phase could be built that would include another manufacturing and production facility employing another 2,000 workers.

The permit application was filed because the proposed work includes filling nearly 195 acres of wetlands. The application proposes a mitigation plan that would preserve, restore and enhance 1,533 acres of wetlands on four tracts in the Dean Swamp and Walnut Branch watersheds, which are tributaries of the Four Holes Swamp blackwater river.

Volvo said last month that it intends to build a $500 million manufacturing plant in the U.S. in the hopes of doubling its annual sales in this country to 100,000 automobiles over the next few years. Volvo has been owned by Chinese automaker Geely Holding since 2010. It currently has two plants in Europe and two in China.

Cynthia Roldan of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_