$69.3M contract to help Berkeley gear up for Volvo

Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars North America, announced in May the company plans to build its first U.S. plant in Berkeley County.

Workers in Sweden take their summer vacations seriously, which is why there has been little movement to date by that country’s leading carmaker on a Volvo manufacturing plant to be built in Berkeley County.

“Most of Sweden is on summer holiday, so the company has been very quiet,” said spokesman Jim Nichols, referring to the mid-July through August period when most Swedes take their three- to four-week vacation. The summertime break is so important that it’s considered a de facto national holiday.

“I expect newsworthy activity to pick up at the end of August (and) beginning of September,” Nichols said, adding that a groundbreaking at the Camp Hall Industrial Campus site near Ridgeville likely will be held in late September.

On this side of the pond, however, work on the $500 million car plant is picking up.

Berkeley County Council on Monday approved a $69.3 million contract with Landmark Construction Co. to get the 726-acre Volvo site ready for construction. Landmark will clear and grade the property as well as install storm drainage and erosion control improvements.

“Trucks will start arriving soon to begin land preparation,” Nichols said.

Landmark was among four companies that bid on the project, and the company’s winning bid was cut by more than $10 million with a change order council also approved Monday.

“They (Landmark) won’t have to excavate as much as they thought they would,” said Marc Hehn, deputy supervisor for Berkeley County.

The contract follows Friday’s sale of the Camp Hall site to state-owned electric utility Santee Cooper, which has an economic development arm that helped the state’s Commerce Department put together a $200 million-plus incentives package to lure Volvo to the site off Interstate 26. The plant will be Volvo’s first manufacturing facility in the U.S.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the Moncks Corner-based utility paid slightly more than $34.1 million for the 6,825-acre site, purchased from MWV Camp Hall LLC, a division of timber and packaging giant MeadWestvaco Corp., now known as WestRock Co.

The county will reimburse $5 million to Santee Cooper for the parcel Volvo will occupy, Gore said. The rest of the property will be marketed to other manufacturers and suppliers.

The county also has signed a $4.27 million contract with Thomas & Hutton, which will oversee engineering of the first phase of the Volvo plant. That will include several road improvements, to be paid by the state, such as:

New turn lanes, traffic signals and restriping at I-26 Exit 187, which connects with S.C. Highway 27 and leads into the Camp Hall property from the south. More asphalt also will be placed at the interchange to handle the expected increase in traffic.

Widening Highway 27 to three lanes from two from the exit at I-26 to the Camp Hall entrance.

Widening Highway 176, which leads into the Camp Hall site from the north, to three lanes from two.

Building a new road through the center of the Camp Hall site to connect to a new I-26 interchange at mile marker 189. While that interchange won’t be finished until 2019, a year after the Volvo plant opens, Nichols said its timing is not a problem.

“We knew about the interchange completion timeline before signing the agreement; it was planned into the construction schedule,” Nichols said.

A rail spur also could connect the property to Ridgeville, where the Norfolk Southern line now carries BMWs made in the Upstate to the Port of Charleston. That would require a separate overpass over I-26. An alternative rail connection by CSX also is being considered.

A Santee Cooper electric transmission line cuts through the tract, which is served in various parcels by the utility, Berkeley Electric Cooperative and Edisto Electric Cooperative.

“Right now, we are involved in preliminary design phase work for transmission upgrades needed to serve the plant site and rest of the park once it is developed,” Gore of Santee Cooper said.

A 14-inch main water line will be built from Harleyville to the site, and a 750,000-gallon tank will be built on the Camp Hall property to serve the automaker. Money to pay for the $18 million projects will come from the Army Corps of Engineers, the county and the S.C. Commerce Department.

Nichols said the company has not yet determined which vehicles it will build at the new site and a transitional management team for the plant will be announced at a future date.

Volvo is hoping to jump-start its brand in the U.S. with the debut of 14 new luxury cars over the next four years. Its first entry is the XC90 sport-utility vehicle, which has 5,000 pre-orders in the U.S. The XC60 SUV is Volvo’s most popular car with 11,910 sales through the first half of this year. The Berkeley County plant will make at least two models, with production expected to hit 100,000 vehicles per year. About 65 percent of those cars will be exported through the Port of Charleston.

The first phase of the Volvo site will include a 2,000-worker assembly plant, offices and a welcome center. Depending on market conditions, a second phase could be built that would include another assembly plant employing another 2,000 people.

A study by College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner estimated the annual impact of that many jobs would be $4.8 billion, the carmaker said.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_