With some of the state’s largest economic development deals in recent years, Berkeley County Officials are beginning to question whether roads and other infrastructure need to catch up before more mega projects are approved – and they are pointing fingers at the state government for a lack of help.
“Berkeley County is very fortunate to have good industry. My concern is at the state level,” Councilor Jack Schurlknight said while a Berkeley county board meeting of the financial committee on Oct. 24
The committee was considering a financial incentive for an as-yet-unknown employer that goes by the code name Project Drift. While details such as the name of the company and the total number of jobs won’t be revealed until the committee reconvenes in December, the contract is apparently big enough to have fueled controversy among council members, who say the state is throwing huge projects at them without of helping to build. road needed to support all subsequent traffic.
Schurlknight said unnamed SC officials “would love to get this in here for Berkeley County, but I feel strongly that the state needs to step up and help us with our infrastructure.”
He pointed out SC Highway 176as commissioners spend $53.3 million on the first phase of a widening project to add two lanes to a roughly 4.2-mile stretch in the fast-growing Cane Bay area. All of that money comes from a 1 percent sales tax increase that Berkeley voters approved in 2014.
“I think it’s a disgrace that the state doesn’t step up and fund these roads for us,” Schurlknight said. He directed some of his anger at lawmakers for not directing money from the state’s increased gas tax to Berkeley County to help shoulder some of the cost.
“They want to bring these big projects to Berkeley County, drop them off and then leave us,” he said. “Then we’re stuck with the traffic … Quite frankly, if we didn’t have that 1 percent sales tax, there’s no telling where Berkeley County would be today.”
If the state won’t help, Schurlknight said, he will vote against incentives for Project Drift.
The Economic Development Coordinating Councilpart of SC Department of Commerceprovides grants to counties to pay for the development of commercial development, but that money must go to the direct construction costs of the project and not to peripheral road needs.
The General meeting approved a gas tax increase in 2017 intended to repair existing roads and bridges, but it does not generate funds for new construction. That task has largely been left to individual states, and voters in Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester and elsewhere have approved sales tax increases to address the problem.
Minister Tommy Newell said he had already made up his mind about Project Drift.
“I’m ‘hell no’ on this vote,” he said, adding that county taxpayers have already spent $300 million on infrastructure that should be the state’s responsibility.
“Until they give us a refund, I don’t care what Columbia says.”
Berkeley County is home to some of the state’s biggest economic development announcements in recent years. Volvo cars and the $1.2 billion manufacturing campus in Ridgeville, where approx. 1,500 people work tend to grab the biggest headlines, but the county has also welcomed large employers such as a publicly traded nutritional supplement manufacturer Thorne HealthTechdefense contractor W International and an auto parts manufacturer IF in recent years. It has also landed several major expansions of existing businesses, such as a steel producer Núcor Corp.the other JW aluminum mill and SAICanother defense contractor.
Al said Berkeley County has seen more than $3.4 billion in industrial investment since 2016 from companies that added 4,630 jobs to local payrolls, according to SC Department of Commerce.
This isn’t the first time county officials have been taken aback by the development taking place in their neck of the woods.
In 2017, Council Caldwell Pinckney Jr. said: “We don’t have to let everyone in.” Berkeley County just because they want to come,” adding that the county should be more selective about the incentives it issues.
Pinckney’s statement was a response to growing traffic congestion in the once rural Jedburg Road area and followed the council’s concerns. Josh Whitley — chairman of the finance committee — presented about a year earlier.
“We’re in the driver’s seat in Berkeley County right now and we can say no to some projects,” Whitley said in August 2016.
That sentiment has resurfaced as commissioners ponder the pros and cons of what promises to be another big announcement in Project Drift.
Minister Steve Davis said he’s amazed at how nice the state roads are around the Upstate’s manufacturing facilities, but “come to Berkeley County and my car hits a pothole every 20 miles. It’s ridiculous.”
Davis said he plans to vote against Project Drift if Berkeley County doesn’t start getting its fair share of road aid.
“We need to change the directive about where we are with reference to how business is done in Colombia,” he said.
Whitley said all details about Project Drift – “What the project is, where the project is” – will be revealed before another vote is taken.
Meanwhile, tax credits for the project initially received approval in the first round, by a vote of 4 to 2. Newell and Davis were the naysayers.