S.C. Economic Developers Say Elephants, Buffaloes Are Always in Season

Richard Breen

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

They're the big projects that bring in hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. Experts have their own special terms for this type of much-sought-after economic development.

“I've heard it called elephant hunting or buffalo hunting – either one,” says Carter Smith, executive vice president of the Economic Futures Group in Spartanburg.

For more than two decades, South Carolina has been an expert elephant (or buffalo) hunter, racking up wins with high-profile companies from Amazon to BMW to Boeing to Volvo. While the value of elephant hunting is sometimes open to debate, it has helped the Palmetto State’s economic development efforts – and it isn’t going away any time soon.

“We’re certainly going to always hunt elephants,” says Jeff Ruble, economic development director for Richland County. “At any given time, there’s always a couple of big ones in our mix.”

Richland County landed an elephant earlier this year when fiberglass products maker China Jushi announced it would a manufacturing facility at Pineview Industrial Park. The company expects to invest $300 million and hire 400 workers, with the potential for expansion in the future.

“Jushi should have some suppliers as well,” Ruble says, which would bring additional development and jobs to Richland or surrounding counties.

The ability to attract suppliers that want or need to be nearby is a key element to elephants and buffaloes – and not all are created equal. BMW says approximately 40 of its suppliers are in South Carolina, accounting for 20,000 jobs on top of the 8,000 workers at its Plant Spartanburg near Greer.

Smith describes BMW as “the gift that keeps on giving.”

“It’s a significant project and it grows a significant supplier network throughout South Carolina,” he says.

BMW supplier Magna International recently announced it would build a seat manufacturing plant at Tyger River Industrial Park in Spartanburg County. The $29 million project is expected to create 480 jobs over the next five years, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.

There’s also a harder to measure, but still important, impact made by elephants. Big investments by big-name companies attract attention that reflects on the communities in which they operate. It’s a selling tool South Carolina uses in economic development marketing.

“Branding is incredibly important,” Dr. Joey Von Nessen of the University of South Carolina tells South Carolina CEO. “When you have a good reputation, people take notice and they take you seriously.”

It becomes an entrée which allows South Carolina to tout its selling points.

“In South Carolina, we have a very good business climate,” Von Nessen says, mentioning the Port of Charleston, technical college system and transportation infrastructure. “We have a lot of competitive advantages here.”

Elephants and buffaloes aren’t always trendy, however. Economic development conversation sometimes shifts toward specific industries or mid-sized firms or startups.

“You’re better off with five $20 million plants than one $100 million plant,” is how Ruble describes the opposing view.

Another challenge is that because elephants are so coveted, competition is fierce.

“We work our tails off on a lot of big projects and they just disappear,” Ruble says.

Both Ruble and Smith use baseball lingo in describing smaller projects as singles and doubles compared to the home run power of an elephant.

“Our day-to-day business is the singles and the doubles,” Smith says. “I wouldn’t say we focus on elephant hunting. We generally have a good workload of all different kinds. But when we have the opportunity for large-impact projects, we want to be able to swing for the fence.”

Ruble estimates that Boeing’s North Charleston operation has the potential to be the state’s biggest elephant as it grows its local supplier base.

“You’re going to see more and more of that,” he says, adding that USC’s McNair Center for aerospace research could help facilitate Boeing-related growth in Richland County.

Not that multiple economic development methods can’t coexist. Columbia software firm TCube Solutions recently announced a $1.7 million expansion that is expected to create 100 jobs.

“That’s a company that started with two people,” Ruble says. “They really are a homegrown company and they’re going to stay in Columbia.”

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Richard Breen is a senior editor at SouthCarolinaCEO.com. Got an idea? Contact him at richardbreen@southcarolinaceo.com

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