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How Columbia lured in White Claw brewery and canning plant

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Summer of Seltzer

Sales of White Claw and other fruity, alcoholic seltzers soared as drinkers looked for lighter, healthier options. The maker of White Claw and Mike’s Hard Lemonade will build a $400 million brewery in Richland County. Jenny Kane/AP

COLUMBIA — When the brewers of White Claw hard seltzer landed at the Columbia airport in August, they boarded a bus and were handed laptops. Richland County's largest and fastest-paced sales pitch in recent history was about to begin.

As they rode to the site in Lower Richland they were considering as home for their third and largest U.S. production facility, details of every local feature popped up on an interactive map, from technical information on the capacity of the wastewater treatment plant to entertainment amenities like Williams-Brice Stadium and Congaree National Park.

Water and power being the brewer's greatest concern, utility officials were all on site to answer any questions. With that, Richland County would land its second-largest development deal ever, bringing $400 million in investments and 300 new jobs to the area.

When the county entered the hunt for the company’s business, Chicago-based Mark Anthony Brewing was looking at sites in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, as well South Carolina, said Jeff Ruble, Richland County’s economic development director. And it wouldn't immediately work out.

After the site visit, Ruble got a call saying they had settled on another site and would announce a deal in the next 24 hours.

“I told my team, 'Guys, I'm sorry. We worked hard on this but they’re going to Florida,'” Ruble said.

Then that deal unraveled.

“Someone pumped the brakes and said we need to look a little harder at this,” Ruble said.

The company had an aggressive timeline, Ruble said. In comparison, when fiberglass manufacturer Jushi announced it was coming to Columbia in 2016, it had been a roughly five-year process to woo the Chinese company.

“This one was the exact opposite,” Ruble said.

Representatives came in the last week of August and made a decision by early October — two months.

For Mark Anthony Brewing, speed was key.

“They have 50 percent of the (hard) seltzer market, and the competition is rushing in,” Ruble said.

White Claw variety packs were the No. 1 and No. 5 selling beer products in the United States last year. They would have held both first and second except the company couldn’t push out product fast enough.

There was a sales loss of roughly 20 million cases because the company couldn’t meet demand, according to Ruble. That won’t happen again.

The company's Richland County facility will have a number of can packaging lines, a bottle line and will produce enough alcohol at this plant to supply two other canning plants for distribution. In addition to White Claw, it will make Mike's Hard Lemonade and Cayman Jack drinks.

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Despite the tight deadlines, grabbing a jobs-creating economic development deal like this in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic was substantial, with every state experiencing unemployment spikes.

"Companies coming in and saying we're going to expand, that’s been kind of few and far between," said Keller Kissam, president of electric operations at Dominion Energy South Carolina and board chairman of the Central SC Alliance economic development organization. "That means even more when were going through an economic downturn."

And it was jobs for his Lower Richland community, the place Kissam has called home for 23 years, that drew him into the deal.

Usually it takes Dominion Energy a year to 18 months to build a substation, something the company needed for its more than 1 million-square-foot facility. Because of his position, Kissam was also able to make a commitment, telling Mark Anthony Brewing his company would make it the top priority.

"There’s a lot on the line," Kissam said.

And Dominion approached the project with the same "get it done" mentality as it does for hurricane response.

Sensing the sincerity of the company representatives, Kissam said Dominion went ahead and ordered the transformer after only meeting two times, even before the deal was finalized.

“This is a pretty sizable power user,” Ruble said — 30 megawatts, about four times the power use of Williams-Brice stadium on game day or enough to power 5,700 average homes.

And for water, the brewery will need 3 million gallons per day. Jushi is the Capital City's next largest water user, at 400,000 gallons per day.

In response, the city agreed to enact long-discussed bulk water and sewer rates that offers a per gallon discount to large users, which will help to attract industry.

"In the past, we lost projects because of this," Ruble said, despite having one of the largest and best utilities systems in the state.

The city, in anticipation of growth, also had upgraded the Mill Creek Pump Station, which sits several thousand yards from the site about four years ago, said Clint Shealy, the assistant city manager who oversees water operations.

With expansion in mind, the city also built two large water pipelines that Mark Anthony Brewing can draw from, one that's already serving Jushi's sister company Miwon and another that is about to come into service.

"We had already invested in infrastructure to handle something of this magnitude, and now we'll get a return on that investment," Shealy said.

In exchange for its investment, the company will receive state tax credits for the jobs it brings and a $4.6 million state infrastructure grant. It was also awarded a $1.5 million grant from the county and was deeded 200 acres for brewery construction.

The plant is scheduled to open May 2021.

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