COLUMBIA -- Much of the progress along the Interstate 95 corridor through South Carolina has been hindered and, in some cases, reversed as a result of the recession and lingering economic slump.
Eight of the state's 10 poorest counties run alongside the corridor, which also struggles with high unemployment that averaged 12.9 percent in 2009, declining populations and a workforce that lags in education and training.
Despite the debilitating mass layoffs and plant closures in the last several years, the job losses in the corridor are actually lower in volume than those of the 2001 recession, according to an analysis by the state Department of Commerce completed this month.
The report, "Economic Development in South Carolina's I-95 Corridor Region," shows that the I-95 corridor has seen a net gain of more than 7,000 jobs over the last decade. Between 2006 through 2009, the Commerce Department reports that more than 11,200 new jobs were recruited worth $2.1 billion in capital investments.
The counties along I-95 have lost 42 percent of their manufacturing jobs and 32 percent of their construction jobs. But that has been offset by a 47 percent growth in health care jobs and a whopping 93 percent uptick in the education sector.
Still, the challenges are clear: The corridor has a long way to go. Unemployment is much higher than in South Carolina's metropolitan areas of Charleston, Greenville and Columbia, which combined averaged a 9.7 percent jobless rate last year.
The rates in individual I-95 corridor counties have bounced around. Clarendon County, for example, consistently ranks in the top 15 of the 46 counties for unemployment. In recent years, the county saw a high of 17.4 percent unemployment in January 2010 and a low of 7.3 percent in May 2007. The current rate stands at 14.8 percent.
Clarendon County will lose an employment staple next month with the closure of the Federal-Mogul Corp. plant just outside Summerton. But elsewhere in the I-95 corridor, some of the unemployed will be drawing a new paycheck.
In nearby Barnwell County, workers from the corridor counties will travel to new jobs at Horsehead Corp., the world's largest producer of zinc from recycled sources. The Pittsburgh-based company, which created 65 new jobs, held its grand opening last week.
Another boon for Barnwell County was the announcement last year that Crane Co. will consolidate its North American vending operations into its Dixie-Narco facility in Williston, adding 1,000 jobs by 2014.
South Carolina's chief economic forecaster John Rainey said the trends along the I-95 corridor represent the ebb and flow of the economy, a principle that is largely unavoidable. The same story line is playing out across the whole country, he said.
The corridor is especially sensitive, however, because the job base is already small and recruitment is difficult, he said.
"Any loss is significant, no matter what the gains," Rainey said. "We need to gain jobs in the state. We don't need to lose any."