State woos major tire importer

Sen. Larry Grooms said a new, unidentified business being pursued 'would be one of the port's largest customers from day one.' The prospect is eyeing a site near Jedburg that's being developed by MeadWestvaco and the Rockefeller Group. Grooms (fourth from

An aggressive state campaign identified publicly only as "Project Neptune" aims to make a tire importer the first anchor tenant of a new Berkeley County industrial park, The Post and Courier has learned.

Those involved in courting TBC Corp., the parent company of Tire Kingdom, hope that such a recognizable name could help kick off several commercial real estate developments that could generate 17,500 jobs over the next 15 years outside Summerville.

TBC should make a decision in the coming weeks, and if it chooses to land locally it would be the first commitment to a 400-acre industrial park being planned along Interstate 26 near Jedburg.

Asked weeks ago about Project Neptune, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, lauded the company as "one of the port's largest customers from day one," and statewide, "larger than the economic benefits we receive from BMW."

Dour economic circumstances have made the pursuit of the company a top priority. State unemployment has hovered around 12 percent in recent months, and the latest jobless report shows that the Charleston area has lost 2,700 transportation, trade and utility positions during the past year.

At the same time, the S.C. State Ports Authority's container volume fell nearly 20 percent as global demand for consumer goods has dropped.

Patrice Kelty-Webster, TBC's communications manager, did not address questions about the company's interest in Berkeley County, saying in an e-mail that "TBC constantly explores opportunities to better service our wide variety of customers."

She also said the company would make an announcement if it decides to locate a facility in the Charleston area.

If economic development officials succeed, TBC would build a massive warehouse near Summerville. Trucks would pick up tire shipments from the local port terminals and repackage them at the distribution center for shipment to automotive businesses across the Southeast.

The distribution center would create roughly 200 jobs, but officials said the facility could attract other companies, and they, in turn, would generate thousands of other jobs.

"Some businesses beget other businesses. If we get a new (industrial) tenant, it's truck driver jobs, people that handle freight," said Berkeley County supervisor Dan Davis, who spoke only in general terms about attracting employers.

"Everybody needs jobs, and we certainly would like to see a significant project located in the Jedburg area."

The warehouse site in question is a largely wooded tract being developed by the Rockefeller Group and MeadWestvaco Corp. In June the companies began improving the property, which eventually could hold nearly 3 million square feet of industrial space.

Ken Seeger, president of MeadWestvaco's real estate development division, said the company is "working hard with officials in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties and at the state level, as well as the Port of Charleston, to bring jobs to the Charleston region."

Seeger, top state lawmakers and a handful of economic development officials declined to comment on the company's identity and the scope of the project, citing confidentiality agreements.

Berkeley County Economic Development Director Gene Butler would not discuss the venture, and state Commerce Department spokeswoman Kara Borie said that the agency does not "comment on projects we may or may not be working." The SPA also declined to comment.

That's because the deal remains in negotiations with some formidable competition. People close to the discussions but not authorized to discuss the details publicly have listed Savannah and Norfolk, Va., as other possible competitors for Project Neptune.

Savannah, a longtime maritime rival for Charleston, boasts two advantages: a handful of big, completed warehouses and a strong state incentives package for new business.

The Savannah region has seven large-scale buildings, most built recently, that could accommodate a big tenant within a matter of months, according to industrial broker John Neely of Savannah-based Colliers Neely Dales Real Estate.

Developers built the projects before the recession hit and are now eager to offer competitive rates, Neely said.

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Charleston area developers have focused not on speculative building but on preparing large industrial park tracts near the Jedburg area, which could see the creation of 12 million square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space during the next decade if all of the proposed projects come to fruition.

Project Neptune has brought together political and business leaders from across the state.

Among South Carolina's stated advantages is that Charleston's deep harbor makes it better equipped to handle the larger vessels traversing trade lanes after the Panama Canal expansion in 2014.

Commerce officials and state leaders involved in the deal worked on making the most enticing incentives package possible. Those details will be exempt from public record for a year if the state reaches an agreement.

The S.C. Council on Competitiveness last week unveiled its "plan to ignite" the state's transportation, distribution and logistics cluster. The report cited the Port of Charleston's loss of business from top customer Maersk Line and the volume decline.

It also noted that in the late 1990s Georgia outbid South Carolina for a Home Depot distribution center by offering below-market-value land, tax incentives and a road to connect the facility with Interstate 95.

Soon came Dollar Tree, Walmart Stores Inc. and more than two dozen other retailers. Savannah quickly caught up and passed Charleston in the rankings of U.S. ports as measured by container volume.

Bob Barrineau, a local industrial real estate broker with CB Richard Ellis Carmody who is not involved with the Project Neptune, said winning the deal "would validate Charleston's position in the global supply chain."

"It would be a win for the State Ports Authority," he said. "And it would stake our claim going forward as a competitive port that's a good place to do business."