For most of its lifespan, the DuPont plant in Berkeley County has had to confront and roll with the forces of globalization.
In 1976, for example, American consumers were buying and wearing polyester, and DuPont's Cooper River site was a top domestic producer of the synthetic material. But the chemical giant eventually lost its foothold in that market to cheaper manufacturers abroad, triggering a slow but dramatic reduction in its Berkeley County payroll. In 2001, it sold the local business to a Mexican company.
But now, DuPont is looking to meet growing demand for a product introduced more than 40 years ago that it hopes will provide a steady source of employment at the Cooper River plant in the years ahead.
Last week, the Wilmington, Del.-based company announced plans for a new $500 million expansion that, when completed in 2010, will help it increase worldwide production of an exceptionally strong fiber called Kevlar. The move will create about 100 permanent jobs.
DuPont executives touted the anticipated demand for the product, while local officials celebrated the expansion as one of the largest capital investment projects in Berkeley County.
And while the DuPont site might never again have a four-figure payroll as it did at its peak, economic development officials aren't complaining. As they see it, the Kevlar deal represents a solid long-term commitment from a prominent global company.
"You don't put $500 million in the ground and plan to pull out anytime soon," said John Scarborough, Berkeley County's economic development director.
He added that the high-paying jobs will have a ripple effect.
"So the car lot gets to sell more cars, the restaurant gets to sell more meals — down to the golf course, which gets more business," Scarborough said.
DuPont's local presence began in 1970, when it bought about 2,100 acres along the west branch of the Cooper River. The wooded tract was known as Dean Hall Plantation, and slightly more than half was high, buildable ground.
Several years later, the company announced plans to build a massive manufacturing plant on 275 acres of the property, where 1,500 workers or more were expected to turn out a brand of polyester called Dacron. The $266 million facility covered an area the size of seven football fields.
"The start-up capacity of the Cooper River plant will be the biggest of any man-made fibers plant built by any company anywhere in the world," a DuPont executive said at the time.
But before it even opened, it experienced its first encounter with global forces. By 1976, the synthetic fibers market had become oversaturated. Polyester clothing began to fall out of fashion, and companies with low-wage overseas factories were able to turn out the material at cheaper prices.
The downturn was felt at the Cooper River site, which at the time was hiring its first employees. "We won't bring any capacity on stream unless we can sell it," a plant official told a local news-paper.
The payroll at the plant eventually totaled 1,300 workers, about 200 short of original projections, and global competition began to chip away at that.
The mid-1980s marked a major turning point, as incremental job cuts eventually halved the work force to about 550 employees.
More head-count reductions followed from 1993 to 1996.
"Polyester has always been a tough business," said Ellis McGaughy, DuPont's current Cooper River plant manager, speaking in general terms about the market. "It's not a real specialty- driven type of business, so there's a lot of competition. There's a lot of people still building polyester plants all over the world."
By a thread
When polyester became fashionable again in the late 1990s, DuPont ramped up production at its Dacron sites to keep up with demand. But by the end of that decade, when the company had around 460 local employees, it decided to hedge its bets and diversify, picking the local plant over nine other sites for a new plastics production line.
The expansion, which included a 133,000-square-foot building, would add 230 workers over five years. Some of the hires would manufacture Hytrel, a flexible plastic used in the automotive industry, and a smaller portion would make a plastic resin.
Globalization came into play again at DuPont in 2001, when a Mexican company that invested in steel, long-distance phone service and home-improvement centers bought the polyester operations. DuPont transferred its 250 polyester-making employees to the company, which formed a Charlotte-based division called DAK Americas. The Mexican-owned operation still makes polyester at the Cooper River site.
As for DuPont, its local payroll is down to about 60 workers who continue to produce plastics at a healthy rate, McGaughy said.
"Ever since we started up, we have produced more and more material each year," he said.
While it might never have 1,300 workers again, the company has high hopes for the Kevlar business, saying it is less vulnerable to global competition. Thomas Powell, vice president and general manager of DuPont's Advanced Fibers Systems unit, spoke optimistically last week about future demand for the high-strength fiber.
The company called the Cooper River investment the "centerpiece" of a multiphase, multiyear expansion that ultimately will boost its global Kevlar manufacturing capacity by more than 25 percent, the biggest single increase since the product was introduced in 1965.
Powell said demand is being fueled by the need for safer workplaces and more secure lifestyles. Companies use the thread to make protective clothing, such as cut-resistant gloves and bullet-resistant vests. The material can strengthen the bodies of cars and trucks, making them more secure.
The material strengthens fiber-optic cable, which is used to grow infrastructure in sprawling metropolitan areas. And the lightweight material also can save energy costs in vehicles and airplanes.
The company already is planning ahead to grow its local Kevlar operation, which will begin production in 2010. DuPont has drafted plans for three more buildings at the Cooper River site the size of the initial plant, just in case demand continues to increase.