Business cycle creating new manufacturing opportunity (copy)

Kent International's Bicycle Corp of America in Manning has been harmed by trade tariffs, the CEO of the company said. File/Staff

MANNING — Flanked by then-Gov. Nikki Haley and a host of other South Carolina dignitaries in 2014, the chief executive of bicycle manufacturer Kent International proudly announced the opening of the company's new 200,000-square-foot factory in this Clarendon County town.

Four and a half years later, Kent's Bicycle Corp. of America plant in Manning played host Thursday to a far less cheery event: a panel discussion on the impact of tariffs on South Carolina's economy.

"For us, these tariffs have been very hurtful," said Kent CEO Arnold Kamler.

The company's costs increased by about 10 percent in September, Kamler said, driving retail prices up and sales down. The subsequent hit to business meant that the company could not afford to pay bonuses to employees last year.

"Yes, China might be hurt a little bit, but is the U.S. getting gains off of these tariffs? The answer is no," Kamler said. "Look, China's cheating and there are ways to ... address these problems, but they clearly are not being addressed presently. While we have lots of ideas, nobody in Washington wants to listen."

Tariffs Hurt the Heartland

A panel hosted by national group Tariffs Hurt the Heartland discussed the impact of trade wars in South Carolina on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Kamler was one of several panelists to speak Thursday at a town hall hosted by an organization called Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, a nonpartisan national campaign supported by more than 150 trade associations from a wide range of industries.

The group estimates that South Carolina businesses have paid an extra $126 million in additional tariffs brought on by the Trump administration, including $58 million last October alone — seven times more than the tariffs they paid on the same products at the same time the previous year. 

Jim Newsome, CEO of the State Ports Authority, said American businesses and consumers have been "spoiled by a very reliable supply chain" in recent years, but he warned that reliability could be derailed if economic disruptions keep up.

"This sort of unpredictability is not good for us and it's not good for the global supply chain," Newsome said. "It's fine to have this discussion (on trade deals), but you've got to land the plane quickly. If you don't land the plane, the uncertainty is really untenable."

Harkening back to his childhood in south Georgia, Newsome cited an old adage that if you start a fight, you'd better know how it's going to end. 

"The problem from my end is we've started the fight and we have no real vision of how it's going to end," he said, comparing the trade wars to the famous food fight scene in the 1978 film "Animal House." 

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Despite the sustained domestic pressure, Trump has not let up from his tariff strategy, which he has cast as a tactic to force other countries back to the negotiating table on broader trade deals.

In a series of tweets Thursday, the president said that China's trade representatives do not want an increase in tariffs and that both sides are working toward an agreement.

"Looking for China to open their Markets not only to Financial Services, which they are now doing, but also to our Manufacturing, Farmers and other U.S. businesses and industries," Trump said. "Without this a deal would be unacceptable!"

While business leaders were prepared to weather a temporary storm in anticipation of promised new trade deals, they said patience is wearing thin.

"We understand the idea of these tariffs is to create leverage to get a deal, so my question is: Where's the deal?" said Sarah Thorn, a senior government affairs official at Walmart. "We can't keep negotiating and moving the deadlines on an agreement with China if our stated goal of all of this pain to you all and to our other manufacturers is to come up with some sort of deal."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.