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Editorial: Walmart center promises new vitality to an area thirsting for it

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For generations, Charleston’s regional growth has spread along Interstate 26 like oil up a wick, and news that Walmart plans a major distribution center on the State Ports Authority’s Ridgeville Commerce Park marks yet another big step west.

For Dorchester County, the $220 million project represents a very welcome economic shot in the arm, one valued even more because it arrives during a time of ever-stiffer economic headwinds brought on by both a pandemic and a trade war.

County Council Chairman George Bailey said the 1,000 full-time jobs that the project is expected to create would be a boon for the northern part of the county, where development has lagged. “I can’t say anything negative,” he told us. “I got an awful lot of calls and emails saying, ‘This is great.’ ”

The project would be much more attractive if it hadn’t required the state and county to hand out tax breaks and hand over property, but unfortunately governments here and elsewhere have trained corporations to expect tax giveaways.

The project will necessitate road improvements along S.C. Highway 27, which links the distribution center site to Interstate 26, and the S.C. Coordinating Council for Economic Development also is giving the county $5 million for such infrastructure work. Mr. Bailey said the new center should help ensure that plans to widen the interstate to six lanes between Summerville and Exit 187 remain on track.

The new center also promises to encourage additional residential and commercial development that’s already moving northward and westward of Summerville. This increased development around the outer edges of the Charleston metro area will bring its own problems, and local governments would be wise to consider the impact on existing residents and the heightened demand for public services and infrastructure going forward.

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For the State Ports Authority, the news is a major coup, “a home run ... a big deal,” as President and CEO Jim Newsome put it. Walmart’s distribution center not only promises to give the port a major increase (about 5%) in container volume, but its decision validates the quality of the port operations.

Walmart’s building on about 250 acres at the northern end of the ports authority’s industrial park will be enormous, likely the Lowcountry’s largest in terms of its footprint. At some 3 million square feet — more than 52 football fields — it will be almost twice the size of Walmart’s existing distribution center off Interstate 385 near Laurens.

Meanwhile, the retailer’s decision likely will mean more traffic for the state’s docks and its commerce park. “Attracting a major brand name like Walmart is a good calling card for other people,” Mr. Newsome said. “We’re working on a few other projects, and I think this gives us a good boost.”

The Ports Authority’s plan for the park is to pair Walmart’s import volume with rail-served export projects on the southern end, which already is served by Norfolk Southern’s mainline. Such exports could include forest and agricultural products, possibly plastics, and they would help decrease the number of empty containers hauled along nearby roads.

While most all containers are expected to move by truck, it’s conceivable that may change in future years. The site will not become an inland port like the one the authority runs in Greer, but Mr. Newsome said rail eventually could play a larger role at the site.

It’s no surprise many are excited about the economic boon this project promises to create in a part of rural Dorchester County that has seen relatively little economic change in recent years.

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