30 years ago, BMW transformed the Upstate. Will Scout do the same for the Midlands?
“Greer will never be the same,” read the headline in the Greer Citizen newspaper on June 24, 1992.
The day before, 300 people, including German executives and Southern dignitaries, gathered to hear Eberhard Von Kuenheim make an announcement. The chairman of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG was tuning in from Munich, Germany, via satellite to announce that 900 acres just outside the Greenville-Spartanburg airport would soon become BMW’s first North American production plant.
The news changed everything for the small town of Greer, and the surrounding Spartanburg County. Now, Spartanburg County has become a hub for manufacturing. The county has more jobs than people and enough tax revenue to renovate its courthouse and its municipal complex in tandem.
With a new automaker moving into South Carolina’s Midlands, many have hearkened back to how BMW reshaped the Upstate communities in its orbit, wondering whether Scout Motors, backed by Volkswagen, will have a similar impact for Blythewood and the Columbia area.
A new economy for the Upstate
When BMW moved in, Greer’s economy was dying. The small town, about 30 minutes from Spartanburg, had long been known for its peach farms and textile mills. But by the early 1990s, the textile industry in the U.S. was in the throes of collapse. (Between 1990 and 2011, the U.S. lost 80% of clothing manufacturing jobs in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere, according to labor statistics.)
“It devastated our local economy,” said Greer Mayor Rick Danner. In the span of 10 years, the town lost all five of its textile mills and the jobs that came with them.
It wasn’t just Greer. All of Spartanburg County had been reliant on textiles. By 1992, there were 25,000 people unemployed in the county, said Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt.
Britt joined the council in 1991, just before BMW’s big move. At the time, there was a feeling of desperation across his county.
Britt is perhaps one of BMW’s biggest fans. He proudly displays photos with BMW leaders and novelty license plates celebrating the plant’s major milestones over the years.
To him, and to most who spoke with The State, BMW saved Spartanburg County.
The jobs were better than the lost mill jobs, Britt said. They paid better, and employees got a nice perk: They could lease their own BMWs.
“You’d see thousands of people who normally they’d just be driving a pickup truck, driving a BMW,” said longtime Greer businessman James Carter, who owns Empire Limited Haberdashery and Tuxedos.
He laughed, saying Greer probably had the most BMW drivers per capita in the U.S. at one point.
There may have been angst among a few community members when BMW moved in, Danner said; concerns about traffic and questions about growth. But for the most part, people were thrilled for the town’s eventual revival.
“We as a community thought life as we knew it was going to change overnight,” Danner said.
But that didn’t exactly happen.
They expected a “gold rush” of new people to move in. New restaurants and supermarkets. Traffic. But the growth happened steadily over time, rather than all at once.
The initial jobs with BMW were to build the actual plant. A lot of people came from elsewhere, Danner said. The drive time for an early BMW employee at Plant Spartanburg ranged from five minutes to over an hour. But the town never felt overrun by new people.
It also takes time to pull a large manufacturing plant together. The plant was announced in 1992, and two years later the first BMW made in the U.S. rolled off the production line.
The ramp-up gave Greer a chance to plan. The town underwent a streetscaping project and later, with the help of new tax revenue, built a new city hall, a new police headquarters, a new public park. All in preparation for the growth they knew would come decades down the road.
And grow Greer has. In 1990, the town had fewer than 12,000 residents. Today, that number is closer to 35,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. County-wide, Spartanburg has added 109,000 people.
With the Midlands region now looking forward to Volkswagen’s Scout Motors investing $2 billion — $1.4 billion more than BMW’s initial investment in Greer 30 years ago — in a plant making electric SUVs and trucks, Danner’s advice to Blythewood is to start planning for the growth now.
“I would suggest the mayor and council go ahead and begin looking at planning and zoning regulations, how you enforce those, and what’s critical to who they are and what they want to be five, 10, 20 years from now,” Danner said.
An obvious impact
At the behemoth Plant Spartanburg, visitors can have an up-close look at the assembly process, tour the Zentrum museum to see BMW’s historic models, and buy BMW-branded thermoses and office supplies.
The facility is not technically in Greer or Spartanburg, but in unincorporated Spartanburg County, about 10 minutes from downtown Greer. Its supporting inland port is about five minutes from downtown. Greer surrounds the plant, but it’s not officially part of the city.
“A lot of people don’t even know BMW is in Greer,” Carter, the Greer businessman, said.
Shortly after BMW moved in, the town of Greer attempted to annex the site of the plant, but the effort was blocked by the governor and state Legislature, who worried the attempt would risk the deal the state had with BMW.
But even as Greer has perhaps flown under the radar in some ways when it comes to BMW’s reputation nationally, there’s no denying the immense impact the plant has had on the town.
“BMWs is big business down here. It’s helped, at this point, put people’s kids in college. People are living much better lives because of BMW than they would have without BMW,” Carter said.
The impact stretches far beyond Greer’s boundaries.
Last year, Spartanburg County recorded $3.2 billion in new capital investment.
Richland County recorded $287 million in new economic investment in that time. Neighboring Lexington County had a landmark year with $448.7 million invested.
Nearly $300 million worth of new projects are planned within three-tenths of a mile in Spartanburg’s downtown. The city and county are building a new city/county complex, a planetarium is being built, the courthouse is being rebuilt, and new condos and retail are also underway.
The success in the Upstate doesn’t just come down to BMW, said Allen Smith, president and CEO of One Spartanburg. One Spartanburg is the area’s overarching entity for tourism, business and economic development. Smith said the growth the community is seeing now is the result of coordinated planning across local agencies.
BMW paved the way, but area leaders haven’t sat back expecting money to roll in.
When the county is recruiting new companies, they tell them they’ll “find themselves in good company.” BMW gives the area credibility that puts other prospective companies at ease, Allen said.
BMW’s suppliers have also played a key role in Spartanburg’s success, he said. Between 30,000-40,000 jobs in Spartanburg County come just from those companies. BMW adds another 11,000.
Not all of those jobs are held by people living in Spartanburg County. Some people drive all the way from Columbia for the work. People come from Charlotte and from Spartanburg’s surrounding counties as well.
The growth does come with its own challenges. With all the new jobs, hiring can be difficult. And the growth has stretched county infrastructure as well.
“If you feel like you’ve got a good grasp on the impact, you’re fooling yourself,” Smith said when asked if he has advice for Richland County.
Blythwood’s growing pains
Years ago, Jasmine Lomas could get in her car and just drive. Now, to get from one end of Blythewood to the other is a commute, she said.
Lomas’ family has owned Blythewood’s Gloriosa Florist and Bloomin’ Bean Coffee Bar for nearly 30 years, and she’s seen the town’s growth firsthand. It’s still a small community, with just over 5,000 residents. But 10 years ago, there were only about 2,000 residents.
“There’s definitely mixed feelings” about the growth Blythewood is already seeing, she said. She measures the changes in new stop lights, more businesses, and more traffic.
The traffic is Blythewood’s biggest problem, said Mayor Bryan Franklin, who grew up in Blythewood and said the two-lane roads that come through town haven’t been updated since he was a kid.
Franklin is excited about Scout Motors being a part of his town. He hopes in 50 years, the plant is still running strong and that people will look back and see it as a beacon of progress, for the history of electric vehicles and the history of Blythewood.
In the near term, building the plant may make traffic worse. But in the long term, Scout choosing Blythewood means the town is finally getting major infrastructure improvements and a slate of well-paying jobs, at least a portion of which will go to Blythewood residents, he added.
Roughly $650 million in state money is about to be invested in improving roads in and around Blythewood.
A new interchange on Interstate 77 will be built to alleviate traffic, and other local road improvements, such as adding roundabouts, are also planned.
As for the jobs, Scout promises to pay well. The average hourly employee is expected to make $60,000 a year, and the average salaried employee is expected to make $100,000.
Franklin also sees this as a chance to leverage the assets of his community to make some big improvements. The town recently bought 40 acres east of Doko Manor, and another 4 acres north of Doko Meadows Park. He hopes to build a covered arena for athletics, concerts and other community events.
Scout Motors CEO Scott Keogh said he’s cognizant that his company is moving into a community that’s already well established.
“This is our home as well, and we want to act like it. Blythewood has been there a whole lot longer than we have,” Keogh said. “We’re not naive to the fact that these things can be disruptive, particularly at this early phase with construction and everything else, and we want to be upstanding members of the community.”
In recent years, Blythewood residents have felt more growing pains that come with rapid change. The town grew 136% in the last decade. New housing projects have irked neighbors who say they moved to Blythewood to be in the country.
And the housing may be being built faster than other infrastructure can keep up.
Earlier this year, a Blythewood resident left several spray-painted messages about a natural gas tank placed near his property. “What’s good for the goose” and “Shame on the town” were among the notes painted in large bright letters to protest the tank, which had been placed there as a temporary supply for new houses built in the area, the local newspaper, The Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield County, reported.
Change is always going to get some pushback, Franklin said.
“You have the growing pains, but then you finally get there,” Franklin said.
There’s excitement among many in Blythewood about the prospect for new business opportunities when Scout Motors moves in, but also a wariness over what the changes will mean for residents’ quality of life.
Keogh hopes that rather than being thought of as remote from the community, Scout will become embedded within it.
“We want people driving down that highway and just (say), ‘Holy cow, Blythewood, that’s where the Scout’s made.’ ‘That’s where that cool car is.’ ‘My dad works there.’ … That’s what we’re trying to create here,” Keogh said.