Could Anything Be Finah Than To Be In Carolina?Walecia Konrad
Gerald W. Holland sure hopes he'll be moving soon. The retired photo engraver is waiting to hear whether German luxury carmaker BMW will build a $1 billion factory smack on his four acres of property, about 15 miles south of Spartanburg, S. C. State politicians are so eager for the 1,800-plus jobs the new plant would create that they've offered Holland and his neighbors at least twice the value of their land. For Holland, that could amount to almost $400,000. He says: "With prices like that, who minds moving?"
Holland isn't the only one extending a warm Southern welcome to the German auto maker. In April, South Carolina Governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr. signed a bill to provide $35 million worth of incentives for BMW to come to Spartanburg. And that is on top of $5 million in state in-come tax credits. South Carolina businesses kicked in an additional $3 million to help train potential BMW employees. And Spartanburg Mayor Robert Rowell, worried about offending the German company, tried to dampen publicity about a proclamation he signed commemorating victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. BMW officials assured the mayor that the proclamation didn't offend them.
TIGHT LIPS. South Carolina's exertions may come to naught, though. Local rumor has it that BMW executives met recently to discuss possible sites. Spartanburg officials believe the competition has narrowed to a showdown between their town and Omaha. But a spokesman at BMW of North America Inc. headquarters, in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., says Spartanburg is just one of a handful of sites BMW is considering around the world for its second non-German assembly plant. And he won't say when the company will pick a site.
This corner of South Carolina could use a boost. The unemployment rate in Spartanburg County is 5%, far healthier than the 7.2% national average. But the nearby counties of Laurens and Union post jobless rates of 6.5% and 9%, respectively. And the jobs BMW would add pay well. U.S. auto workers earn an average of about $32,000 a year, compared with the $25,000 a Spartanburg manufacturing worker earns in a good year. Economists figure the plant could generate more than $500 million in revenues for the state over the next decade.
A BMW plant would be the undisputed leader of a long list of foreign investments in the county. Determined not to get stuck with a raft of dried-up mill towns when textile jobs started disappearing in the late 1970s, state officials went into high gear to woo foreign manufacturers.
The program paid off. South Carolina now leads the nation in per capita foreign investment, with a good deal of that to be found in Spartanburg County. Michelin, Hoechst Celanese, and Adidas USA now all have large operations there and compete for labor with textile giants such as Milliken & Co. and Spartan Mills. Attracted by low labor costs, right-to-work laws, good transportation, and tax incentives, foreign companies have invested more than $1.5 billion during the past 25 years. That's an impressive number for a county with a population of 226,800.
The BMW plant, with its proposed $1 billion budget and 500-acre site, would dwarf anything Spartanburg has seen so far. As to what it would build there, the company says only that it would be a variation on an existing model.
As the deadline nears, Omaha will have to go some to beat Spartanburg's enthusiasm. The incentive package includes $25 million in bonds to buy and improve the land, which the state would then lease to BMW for a nominal fee. An additional $10 million is earmarked for improving roads near the site. Real estate developers are pitching in with five rent-free floors of a nearly empty downtown office building.
In fact, it's hard to find anyone opposed to the BMW plant. About the only concern comes from employers worried about competing with auto workers' traditionally high wages. "BMW will no doubt draw employees from existing industries," says MacFarlane L. Cates Jr., president of Arkwright Mills. "That will mean some additional training costs for us as we hire new employees."
But most people see the BMW plant as a windfall. "The way I look at it," says Gerald Holland, "BMW is making me rich." Rich enough to drive a BMW, if not a Mercedes.