The Element Electronics manufacturing plant in Winnsboro is shutting down in October due to the impact of tariffs, just the latest economic casualty in Fairfield County. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

WINNSBORO — Even before Element Electronics announced it would shutter its manufacturing plant in Fairfield County, residents here could not actually buy the TVs assembled there.

After all, the county's only Walmart that sold them closed two and a half years ago.

The Upcountry Family Restaurant where Element employees could swing by for dinner after work is closed, too. Fairfield Memorial Hospital, where they could get treated, is set to be replaced by a smaller emergency room. 

And then there was the big blow when the large-scale nuclear plant expansion in Jenkinsville was shut down last year by the parent utilities, costing thousands of jobs.

Element's announcement this week that they would layoff 126 employees, citing the Trump administration's "recently and unexpectedly imposed" tariffs on the parts they imported from China, set off a political firestorm nationwide and immediately became fodder in the upcoming South Carolina governor's race.

In this rural county of less than 23,000 people just north of Columbia, the latest high-profile hit landed like a gut punch to a community already reeling from a series of economic blows in recent years that have ravaged its job market and rained on an ambitious turnaround plan.

"It makes us feel like we don't deserve anything," said Moses Bell, 64, who works at a local elevator company and is running for county council. "It gives our people less reason to hope."

Series of setbacks

Every time Fairfield County tries to get back on its feet, it seems to get knocked down again.

A large textile mill on the edge of Winnsboro started to pull back last summer. The plant, owned by the tire company Uniroyal before changing hands to DuraFiber technologies, had anchored the town for a century, building schools and fielding sports leagues to compete against other mill villages.

When it closed under pressure from foreign competition last fall, it represented the state’s second-largest manufacturing layoff that year.

A few months earlier, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper canceled their plans to expand the V.C. Summer nuclear plant, sending nearly 6,000 workers packing in one of the largest and most abrupt layoffs in state history.

The end of construction deflated a boomtown on the county’s western end, and it popped ambitious plans for a turnaround.

County officials hoped to channel a property tax windfall from the reactors toward new parks and bike trails that would make Fairfield a more appealing place to live and visit. And they hoped to build new sewers that could lure new industry.

That money didn’t materialize, and county officials instead said they were stuck with a bill for infrastructure projects for the reactors. The county is suing SCE&G for backing away from its plans.

The immediate impact was profound: Fairfield County lost two-fifths of its jobs in 2017, and the roughly 6,400 it still has represents an eight-year low, Labor Department figures show. Its unemployment rate — 5.7 percent — is among the highest in South Carolina and almost two percentage points higher than the state's average.

"We’ve been screwed by corporate greed, we’ve been screwed by state policy run amok, we’ve been screwed by federal policy run amok and national health care problems," said State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield. "We’ve been beaten everywhere we turn and we’re not going to take it anymore. When you get attacked on all sides, it unites you."

Political implications

The Element Electronics plant was a piece of politics since it was first announced in 2013 by then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

Haley, in her quest to bolster her reputation as a jobs recruiter, would tout the television plant, the only one of its kind in the nation, in speeches before the National Press Club in Washington and to Walmart vendors in Florida.

Haley even held a campaign stop at the plant on the day before she was re-elected in 2014.

On Wednesday, the plant became part of the 2018 governor's race.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith took to the vacant Walmart parking lot in Winnsboro to chastise Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

Smith said the governor has not done enough to persuade Republican President Donald Trump to back off from the tariffs and help Fairfield County, which voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"I believe that Henry can't find Fairfield County on a map," Smith said. "His silence throughout this process has been deafening."

McMaster countered that he has spoken to the Trump administration and lobbied on behalf of companies in the state that ask for his help on tariffs. But the governor argued that the president has a point about addressing trade imbalances with other countries. 

"He’s trying to fix it," McMaster said. "We want to make sure the fix doesn’t hurt South Carolina."

Just last month, McMaster sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging him to consider aluminum product exclusions requested by Fujifilm, which has invested more than $1.8 billion in its Greenwood facility since 1988.

Unlike some other businesses, Element never asked McMaster to request an exemption, the governor's office said. The company's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also visited Fairfield on Wednesday, arriving at Laura's Tea Room in Ridgeway for a meet-and-greet where dozens of locals wore "Save Element" stickers and peppered him with questions about the tariffs. He told the group he "hopes to be helpful in overcoming those obstacles" and has shared his concerns with Trump.

Each time a major employer leaves, it causes ripple effects throughout Fairfield County, crushing smaller local businesses.

Tangee Bryce Jacobs, a local real estate agent and lifelong Fairfield County resident, said the job losses make it far more difficult to sell homes. With young people fleeing the county, the local housing market was already struggling, even though the county has not had a new housing development in decades.

"People always ask me, 'Why do you keep trying in Fairfield?'" said Jacobs, 65. "This is my home. This is my friends, my family, my people. So you've got to keep trying. You've just got to keep trying."

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.