MONCKS CORNER — As they await a decision on the fate of their local utility Santee Cooper, folks who live in Berkeley County's seat feel powerless — and increasingly fearful of the future.
“I can speak for most of the people in this area: They do not want Santee Cooper to be sold,” said Moncks Corner Mayor Mike Lockliear.
State-owned Santee Cooper has been in limbo since July when the utility and its partner, South Carolina Electric & Gas, shut down construction on the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County. The move came four months after their lead contractor, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy.
Neither utility may survive the debacle in its current state, and that prospect looms as a special threat here where Santee Cooper has been such a large employer in an otherwise small town.
“If they do sell it off, I would equate it to a base closure,” Lockliear said. “If it happens, it would be a big blow to Moncks Corner.”
Gene Cribb, owner of Music Man’s Bar-B-Que, was blunter.
“I think Moncks Corner would end up a ghost town,” said Cribb, himself a former Santee Cooper employee. “You kinda hate to see something happen like this, especially when you’ve got no control over it, when there’s nothing you can do about it.”
A bloody nose? Yes, but...
A decade ago, Santee Cooper and SCE&G partnered to build two new nuclear reactors, but the effort was waylaid by a slew of issues like an incomplete construction schedule and unusable designs. After investing about $9 billion, Westinghouse went belly up, and the utilities calculated that it would take at least $12 billion more to finish the project.
Now, Santee Cooper, which doesn’t pay taxes, is under pressure from the governor and state legislators who want the utilities' customers stop paying for reactors that might never produce electricity. Santee Cooper racked up more than $4 billion in debt to finance construction.
Gov. Henry McMaster in particular has pushed for a private buyer to take over Santee Cooper — and cover the debt. At least four out-of-state utilities have considered making a bid, but no deals have been announced. A sale would also need the blessing of the state Legislature.
While there is still furor in Columbia, local residents have more or less forgiven Santee Cooper for its part in the failed nuclear project, Lockliear said.
“It was a bad business deal,” he said. “Should Santee Cooper get a bloody nose? Yes. But should it be dismantled? No.
"When you make a bad deal, you learn from it and move on.”
'These are our neighbors'
Although Berkeley is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, much of its development has been occurring in its southernmost communities, such as Goose Creek, Summerville, Daniel Island and Hanahan — not around Moncks Corner.
“It won’t be easy for people to just run out and get another job,” Lockliear said. Volvo, for instance, will employ thousands of workers at its Ridgeville site — but that's 20 miles away.
In many cases, generations of families have earned their paychecks at Santee Cooper, which was founded more than 75 years ago as the South Carolina Public Service Authority.
The company currently employs almost 1,200 people in Berkeley County.
“I would say 80 percent of the people around and about Moncks Corner worked for Santee Cooper or have a cousin who works for Santee Cooper,” Lockliear said.
As the old adage goes, there’s not enough room to swing a cat in Moncks Corner without hitting a current or former Santee Cooper employee.
“These are our neighbors,” said Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce CEO Elaine Morgan. “These are the people we see in the grocery stores. These are the people that make that contribution in our churches. These are not strangers in a corner that we don’t know.”
Other worries, questions
Hill Tire Centers co-owner Chris Hill, who has two sons who work for the utlility, said he doesn't like some of the things he's learned about the nuclear power project "but there’s been a lot of good decisions made over the years."
"I’d rather have somebody that runs the power company that I can call and give my perspective as a business owner and ratepayer than having to call someone in China or Texas.”
Hill says he hears customers in his Main Street store talking about the situation. Many comments revolve around worries over who and how many people might lose their jobs if the company is sold. But there are other concerns as well.
Some wonder if their electric rates will soar under a new, for-profit owner. Who will maintain Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, as Santee Cooper does now? What will happen to the utility's other recreational holdings, like Old Santee Canal Park and Wampee Conference Center?
And what will happen to people who have 99-year leases on lakefront land with Santee Cooper?
“You hear a lot of stuff going around and you really don’t know what to think,” Lockliear said. “I’m seeing a lot of uncertainty. People are scared. Santee Cooper has been a way of life for Moncks Corner and Berkeley County for a long, long time.”
In Berkeley County, Santee Cooper also has been a good corporate neighbor, Morgan said.
“At different times in the history of Berkeley County, they were sometimes almost the only industry Berkeley County had, and they came up and assisted other small businesses and the community,” she said.
Thriving Moncks Corner
In the last few years, Moncks Corner has seemed to hit its stride as a town.
Its population is beginning to boom, climbing to 10,315 — an increase of about 34 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the Census Bureau.
“They are moving here because it’s a great place to live and raise a family,” Lockliear said. “I think they are coming this way because it’s affordable, and we have jobs. Without the jobs, I don’t think people would be coming this way.”
The town also abuts outdoor recreation opportunities in the Francis Marion National Forest and the Santee Cooper-maintained Lake Moultrie.
The downtown's renewal was fueled by a 52-acre municipal recreation complex on a former lumberyard site on East Main Street. The complex regularly attracts youth travel leagues as well as local teams.
Since the fields opened in 2014, several restaurants and businesses have moved to Main Street, and more are coming, officials said.
The town has added new aesthetic touches such as flowers, banners and murals declaring the town “The Lowcountry’s Hometown.”
Santee Cooper has been a good steward of the town, Lockliear said. A marker in Main's Street's Unity Park thanks the company for the design and construction of its fountain. The utility also helps put up holiday decorations, and its employees volunteer across the town.
In 2011, Santee Cooper started a holiday lights tour that takes motorists through its headquarters and Old Santee Canal Park, a special family event that also has raised about $1 million for local charities.
When Lockliear became mayor in 2015, he made it a priority to forge good relationships with Santee Cooper and two other major employers in the area, Berkeley Electric Cooperative and Home Telephone.
“We knew we were going to need them as partners,” he said. “All three partnered with us to start the Main Street (revitalization) program, and now, I don’t know if we can lean on them anymore to help out with that.”
Town Council is taking an active approach to the possible sale, meeting with legislators to share the town's concerns, Lockliear said.
“The Legislature put Santee Cooper's headquarters in Moncks Corner, and we built our economy around it,” he said. “The way I see it, if they decide to take it away, they should come in and clean up their mess.”
Lockliear said he hasn't lost sleep over the issue yet, “but it’s getting close.”