York County Council approved tax incentive deals Monday night for two huge projects that combined would bring more than 800 jobs and $1 billion of new investment.
The projects are on opposite ends of the investment and jobs spectrum.
The QTS Data Centers project in Lake Wylie projects $1 billion of investment but only a dozen new jobs. The Silfab Solar project in Fort Mill is an investment of $150 million, no small amount in itself but not what the data center projects. But Silfab would create 800 new jobs.
The QTS and Silfab proposals also are on opposite ends of the public input spectrum.
QTS passed with relative ease while Silfab brought scores of community comments and debate even up to Monday night’s vote.
“Not all economic development is the same,” Councilwoman Allison Love said Monday night. “It’s very important that we look at these companies and the opportunities that come before us, that we vet those and that we choose those. And only those that are great for York County.”
Considerable public feedback led to an eventual 4-3 council vote to approve a tax incentive deal for Silfab.
Opponents argued the company will bring traffic, relatively lower wages for the area, a reliance on Chinese products, environmental concerns with air and water quality and chemicals right beside two new schools.
Proponents argued the project would meet the same environmental standards any other would, and manufacturing there is a financial and job boost for the area, compared to warehouse or distribution.
Councilwoman Debi Cloninger represents the area that includes the 7149 Logistics Lane address in Fort Mill. Cloninger repeatedly voted against the plan.
“The boxes are not checked,” Cloninger said.
Cloninger lives a mile from the site and said she shares the varied concerns brought up by neighbors. Cloninger said the decision shouldn’t be dollars and cents, but about people.
“We the people are not excited,” Cloninger said. “We are not happy. We are not opening our arms to you.”
Love echoed those sentiments of listening to people in the area ahead of job, school funding or other financial issues. Love and others said they don’t often get an outpouring of feedback on an incentive project.
“When you get that,” Love said, “maybe you should consider the source.”
Councilman Tom Audette, who heads the county economic development subcommittee, said projects have to go in the right places. With the county dealing with solar manufacturing for the first time, and with two schools coming right beside the property, Audette said he wants to see state health department approval of air and water permits after a public hearing set for next month.
“I am absolutely for manufacturing,” Audette said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for manufacturing. But the final decision then for something like this, for me, has to come down to where, and what is being brought in. The where is critical.”
Other council members said they studied the company and its plan, and they’re satisfied Silfab will be a positive addition to the county.
“It’s a major investment that will create 800 skilled jobs and establish the company as a cutting edge manufacturer in our community,” said Chairwoman Christi Cox.
Cox said the site is an existing industrial park with three decades of business. The project will make the county more competitive in the solar manufacturing industry, Cox said. And with commitments for higher wages than initially shown in incentive documents, Silfab would create less traffic, higher paying jobs and more benefit to schools compared to what the building initially was designed to house, Cox said.
“This opportunity, if you look at the facts, is much better than warehouse and distribution,” Cox said.
Councilman Watts Huckabee said non-management roles at Silfab would still be in the top 30% of York County wages and management or engineering roles would be in the top 10%.
Assistant county manager and CFO Kevin Madden called manufacturing at the Silfab site an economic homerun for York County compared to other property uses. It would have more than five times the economic impact with highly automated manufacturing, Madden said.
“There is a huge difference between what we could be getting in taxes versus what we can get through this,” Madden said.
Councilman Tommy Adkins heard concern about reliance on Chinese products, but said anyone with a computer or phone relies on Chinese products. Adkins said he sees companies like Silfab as a way to turn the manufacturing tide.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get manufacturing back in our country, and start somewhere,” Adkins said. “And at least we’re competing against China.”
Councilman William “Bump” Roddey said a primary aim of council is to improve quality of life, and projects that bring jobs and investment hit that mark.
“We like the 800 jobs,” Roddey said. “We like the tax base that they’re bringing. We like the help that it’s going to provide for our school district, putting people to work.”
QTS Data Center
Council spent far less time Monday night on the QTS project, which passed unanimously.
“I’ve already gotten calls about, you know, how can I get one of the jobs there?” Roddey said.
Roddey said the project brings substantial pay and supports both area schools and county tax base. QTS bought land in Lake Wylie along Hands Mill Highway and Campbell Road for a new data center. Love, who represents the area, said the addition of QTS is the culmination of forethought by county officials.
“If you’ve got a plan in place, and something in mind, don’t ever accept less than that,” Love said.
Years ago the county bought land for $800,000 and sold it to the company for $4.3 million which by itself would have been a great return, Cox said. It became a huge win when QTS proposed the largest scale investment so far in the county, which Cox said could exceed the projected $1 billion.
QTS development program manager Ryan Wehmann said the company will partner with area community college, high school and sustainability programs. The incentive deal aids community growth and job development in the area, Wehmann said.
“QTS is excited to come to York County,” Wehmann said, “and we’re looking forward to getting started.”
Fee for tax agreements
The QTS and Silfab incentive agreements, and many others like them used to attract large business, are similar. They allow the businesses to pay a negotiated fee instead of taxes at a reduced assessment rate. Deals typically span decades. Some allow credits against the fees. The bigger the investment or job count, the more incentives companies can request.
Yet, officials say, each deal is unique.
QTS has the special investment credits worked into its deal, for instance, while Silfab doesn’t. Deals can hinge on location and land use, among a variety of factors.
Cox said there can be public pushback to economic incentive deals.
“It’s one of those things that you have to do in order to attract quality investment,” Cox said. “And I think that our council is committed to attracting high quality investment and maximizing the industrial parks that we have in the county right now.”
South Carolina tax structure isn’t always favorable to other states for business. Which is especially important in an area like York County.
“We are in a position being a border county, where our business taxes just aren’t fair,” Madden said.
Large companies often evaluate multiple sites, sometimes across multiple states. Cox said the county could take a hard stance and not offer incentives. Cox and others say they’d expect far fewer opportunities like the ones QTS and Silfab present.