In Dorchester County, S.C., plans are well underway to spur economic development in the county’s northern half. Dorchester purchased St. George’s wastewater treatment plant and collection system in 2009 with the intent of expanding and updating its operations. It’s hoped the expansion will encourage young people to remain in the community, and lessen the number of commuters — particularly to nearby Charleston — by attracting industry and jobs to the county.
Dorchester came to an agreement with St. George in 2008 to purchase the plant for $1.8 million. Despite the agreement, South Carolina’s laws at that time did not allow for the town council to sell the plant to the county. The situation led the South Carolina Supreme Court to rule on the deal, changing existing state laws. Beyond legal hurdles there was also some public outcry during the process. Residents were particularly in arms about an expected increase in sewer bills.
Despite the challenges, officials knew the move was in the county’s best interest.
“The county realized that without the necessary wastewater treatment St. George, the
county seat, would go stagnate,” Administrator Jason Ward said. “The purchase was very
significant. We had a law firm come in and it’s now a model to be used as an example. It
actually changed state law.”
The purchase allowed needed repairs and upgrades to be made to the system, many of which St. George could not afford to complete. According to Ward, the St. George system had many parts approximately 50 years old.
The county wanted to expand its current operations from 0.8 million gallons per day to 1.8 million gallons per day, with the knowledge more customers would increase the savings seen by the county. As part of the deal Dorchester County found it necessary to make many of the repairs almost immediately after the sale.
“I was hired by the county four years ago,” said Water and Sewer Director Kristen Champagne, noting by that point the county had already made the purchase. “The biggest challenge when you have an existing facility is you have certain regulations you have to meet. We’ve had challenges we knew about, and some we didn’t.”
Dorchester constantly monitored the system while it underwent the necessary construction, working with a local regulator. The St. George system consists of nine pump stations, and at least one pump on all stations needed replacement and some necessary rewiring. Work was also done on the aeration basin using a port-a-dam to lessen interruptions to operations. Then in 2009 the county completed the Duke Street project, where a substation had to go 500 linear feet under the road.
“We had to close the road and reroute traffic,” said Champagne, who noted they practically
rebuilt the road. “When we made the repairs, it reduced inflow by 24 percent.”
The infrastructure improvements have paid off. Champagne said they have made the plant more efficient, reduced costs and are making the staff’s jobs easier, too.
The purchase has also opened the way for Winding Woods Certified Industrial Park, a site composed of more than 1,000 acres east of I-95 and south of I-26 — an ideal location less than an hour from ports in Charleston and Savannah, Ga. To attract industry roads, water and sewer have already been laid to the site. There is also rail service, and to sweeten the pot the county laid reclaimed water lines for the site, which will reduce operation costs for industries that move into the park.
As part of another tactic to attract industry, the Dorchester County QuickJobs Training Center was launched to address the need for employees with certain skills. Additionally, a 47-square-foot campus that holds the courthouse, EMS and fire and a new library has been built in St. George. The library includes high-speed Internet computer labs, something the area is in need of. All are steps to not only reinvigorate St. George, but the county as well.
“I think it’s very unique,” Champagne said. “We didn’t piecemeal it; we looked at the whole picture: jobs, training, transportation.”
Ward went on to explain the purchase of the St. George wastewater treatment plant and collection system was part of a greater plan that’s being compled in partnership with Orangeburg County, S.C., where nine interchanges will be readied for economic development through expanding the two counties’ water and wastewater systems. Currently, a project to connect Holly Hills, in Orangeburg County, and Harleyville, in Dorchester County, is in progress.
“It’s a part of a larger regional plan in lower Orangeburg and upper Dorchester. This whole situation is a multi-million dollar effort,” he said.
So far, the expansion and approach to economic development has brought success in the form of a Flying Jay gas station with a Denny’s inside it, which takes advantage of the approximately 40,000 vehicles that pass through the county annually.
Of course, the Winding Hills industrial park holds promise, too. “We are starting to get significant looks,” Ward said. “I think we’re getting close to a significant offer.”
And according to Champagne, the community is also taking steps, noting St. George has done streetscaping. “We’re really seeing a reinvestment. Industries are going to see that when they look at the community.”
For agencies looking to pursue similar methods of economic development, Ward cannot stress enough the importance of forming partnerships. “The area is very high in low and moderate incomes,” Ward said, noting the area also has low graduation rates. “This is an area that did not have resources to bring the project to bear.”
Ward also recommends if an agency has the opportunity to purchase both the sewer operation and the water system, it should do so. “Develop them in concert with each other,” he said. “Some of the income from water could have helped with repairs.”
Champagne’s advice is to focus on the infrastructure. “Look at the infrastructure. Look into the future, not just the day to day of operating of the facility,” she said. “Have infrastructure and have properly sized infrastructure. People are beginning to realize how vitally important it is to have it. Size it for the future. It’s cheaper to grow it in the beginning.”
As for Dorchester County, both Champagne and Ward have high hopes for its future.
“I really feel we are in more of a position to attract industry,” Ward stated.