Without sewer, copious open land around Greenville remains undeveloped

Sharpen up your resumes, and check out some of the region’s best job openings this week. Anna B. Mitchell

The announcement Friday that Keurig Green Mountain would be opening a $350 million coffee roasting and packaging plant in Spartanburg was the latest reminder to Greenville County economic development leaders: Our neighbors are beating us at the recruiting game.

Could it all come down to flushing a toilet? Most area experts think so.

Sewer is expensive — recent projects have cost about $1 million a mile — and the public sewer authority in Greenville County does not install it until customers are lined up to pay for it.

Companies consider many factors when shopping for a location, said site consultant Mark M. Sweeney of McCallum Sweeney Consulting. And with competition fierce, he said, companies can demand sites that need minimal cost and time to develop. Finding ready-to-go sites larger than 100 acres is nearly impossible in Greenville, he added.

"Greenville has been challenged with the size of their industrial portfolio for a number of years," Sweeney said. "It’s not secret. Everybody knows it and is trying to do things about it."

Mark Farris, executive director of the Greenville Area Development Corp. (GADC), said Greenville County is competing with surrounding counties and Southeastern states that have industrial parks open for business and fully serviced with utilities.

At the moment, Greenville County does not.

"I’ve got to admit, electricity we take for granted and natural gas, we have taken that for granted. Water — we have it all over Greenville," Farris said. "We really lack a comprehensive sewer system, and it is critical for any development, not only manufacturing."

Greenville County Councilman Lynn Ballard said wastewater service is standing in the way of industrial development where open, flat land is still abundant — the 167-square-mile sewerless southern section of the county he represents.

"Any industry that’s coming in, one of the things on their checklist is sewer," Ballard said, "and they don’t want to hear, ‘Well, if you come, we’ll put it in.’ They want to see it in or see the plans with the backhoes out there getting ready to start digging."

Multiple players

Keurig — the coffee pod behemoth — will bring 500 new jobs to Spartanburg and will be the newest tenant of Tyger River Industrial Park in Moore, which is already home to Kobelco Construction, Sterling Contract Packaging and the $1.4 billion Toray plant, a maker of carbon fiber for Boeing.

Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt said his county’s success landing such companies comes after decades of cooperation among park owner Pacolet Milliken, county leaders, public-private development recruiters and — crucially — utility providers.

"Years ago they didn’t always work together," Britt said. "I have been on council 28 years, so I know it’s taken a long time. Sometimes you have to fight to show these groups that it’s for the good for all of us, that we have got to work together."

Anderson County landed a $74 million Arthrex plant last fall that will bring 1,000 high-paying jobs. The county has an in-house wastewater department whose director, Derrick Singleton, has been with the county for about 30 years.

"It works so much better when we sit down with a client, when they say, ‘Do you have sewer?’" said Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns. "We say, ‘Here’s Derrick, and yes, we can tell you exactly what the capacity is.’ If we need to run a sewer line or modify something, we don’t have to ask anyone. We just talk to ourselves."

In Greenville County, sewer is not controlled by the same people who are in the economic development business. And at least a dozen different entities control pieces of it around the county.

ReWa, formerly known as the Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority, treats wastewater at a couple of plants around town and builds sewer trunk lines, the big pipes that bring service to about half of the county.

Smaller sewer-line operations, such as the cities of Greenville and Mauldin and Metro Connects, collect wastewater and bill individual customers. The Parker special purpose district west of Greenville is among six fire departments also in the sewer business.

"You have one treatment company, which is ReWa, but you have a bunch of different collectors that feed to them," Ballard said. "Greenville County has no control over water or sewer. That’s the other reason we have to sit at the table together and work this out."

Grading at the site of new industrial manufacturing business Arthrex in Sandy Springs on March 21, 2018. Arthrex, Inc., a global orthopedic medical device company from Florida, building a new manufacturing plant at the Sandy Springs site in Anderson County, which is expected to open in 2019 and eventually create more than 1,000 jobs by 2025.

But because laying these lines is expensive, ReWa Engineering Director Greg Wright said, the utility does not build them until they identify a paying customer.

"The reason we don’t is because those are typically large expenditures and there is no way to get a return on your money if they sit there," Wright said. "There’s no way to pay the bills for the capital in the ground."

Industrial parks

ReWa’s focus on up-front user fees frustrates Greenville County Councilman Ennis Fant, a member of the Greenville Area Development Corp. board. His district along U.S. 25 also includes large areas without sewer.

"ReWa wants an immediate return on their investment," Fant said. "They don’t do spec development. That’s where the county needs to step in and do infrastructure and land acquisition."

Nearly 30 years ago, Greenville County did just that when it developed The Matrix industrial park off U.S. 25 about a 10-minute drive south of Interstate 85. Now called Augusta Grove, Fant said the park is too far from the interstate and does not have enough large sites to entice industries like Keurig or Arthrex.

"That location is just a drawback," Fant said.

The Greenville County government started developing the Augusta Grove industrial park, previously known as The Matrix, in 1989 as part of an economic development strategy to lure industries and businesses with shovel-ready sites. That county has not developed new sites since this time, officials say, and Augusta Grove is filling up.

The SouthChase Industrial Park off Interstate 385 near Fountain Inn is also full.

County Council Chairman Butch Kirven is in the early stages of organizing a new park — the South Greenvillle Enterprise Park — off Interstate 185, but installing sewer there will cost about $5 million or $6 million, said Wright. ReWa has been in talks with the county over that park and will release a service study for it this summer, he said.

Kirven said he is working with the prospective park’s landowners to organize themselves into a single entity. A road running through the park will also need widening, he said, and the county is in talks with ReWa to figure out some way to pay for sewer.

"We’d love to see it come into play because we desperately need that site availability," Kirven said. "We can’t be all subdivisions. We have to have some job creations. We are at full employment now, but how long will that last?"

Sweeney, the site consultant, said another complicating factor is the rapidly increasing land values in the Greenville area. Local governments building spec industrial parks is most straight-forward, he said, in rural communities that industry would not otherwise consider. In Greenville, land owners and private developers are more involved in the timing and direction of development.

"That’s sort of a secondary issue that a lot of growing cities around the country have to deal with," Sweeney said.

Pay as you go

Another challenge is ReWa’s financial structure.

Sewer operators in Greenville’s neighboring counties, the Spartanburg Sanitary Sewer District and Anderson County’s water department, both charge fees in return for service, just as ReWa does.

But the Anderson and Spartanburg operations also do something ReWa does not: collect property taxes. For Spartanburg, taxes make up about 18 percent of the sewer district’s $33.1 million annual budget. In Anderson, property taxes fund 23 percent of the wastewater operation’s $7.4 million annual budget.

This in effect means that Spartanburg has an extra $6 million to play with annually, Anderson $1.7 million — and, in both cases, the financial heft to run sewer lines on speculation out to sites of potential growth.

"It’s just like the old saying," said Anderson County wastewater director Derrick Singleton. "Build it and they will come."

Britt said the development of Keurig’s new home, the Tyger River Industrial Park, has taken decades, with investments in infrastructure made long before companies committed, or even thought about coming, to Spartanburg.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, we put the infrastructure in," Britt said. "We took 290 and put the money into expanding it and running water and sewer down there. We have great partners in the water and sewer area."

In Anderson County, a similar build-on-speculation mentality landed them Arthrex Inc.’s medical device plant. Burns said the medical-device maker loved his county’s shovel-ready site as well as its location minutes from Tri-County Tech and Clemson University.

Burns, who ran the county’s community and economic development in the early 1980s, credited another sewer project — construction of a wastewater treatment plant at Interstate 85’s exit 27 — to lure Bosch to Anderson in 1985. County voters had approved a referendum allowing the county to get into the sewer business just a few years before, Burns said.

"Since that time we have built lines that have allowed First Quality, Electrolux and Arthrex," Burns said. "It makes our job 1,000 percent easier when the county controls sewer."

Any ReWa expansions and associated debt get picked up by customers across the county, Wright said, and customers notice. People north of Greenville would not be happy footing the bill for southern expansion.

"That is the general worry, how it affects overall rate structure," Wright said. "We have to be careful that we spend money in areas that have some reasonable expectation of return."

That could be where the county comes in, if leaders want to maintain job growth, Fant said.

"So my point is, to be competitive, the county needs to go ahead and take the leadership role in purchasing land, installing infrastructure and having shovel-ready sites available," Fant said. "We can just recapture the funds when the sites are sold."

Greenville County is projected to grow by more than 160,000 residents in the next 25 years, said Lisa Scott Hallo, land policy director for Upstate Forever.

"That growth will bring change, but we do have choices in the way we grow," she said.

This is part of an ongoing series about the Upstate’s rapid growth and the challenges and benefits it brings. Greenville, frequently named one of the best places to live in the country, is the fourth-fastest growing city in the country and that growth is fueling rapid change throughout the Upstate. Our coverage will look at how those changes affect your life, livelihood and quality of living in the metropolitan area that is anchored by Greenville.

Anna B. Mitchell covers business in the Upstate. You can reach her at 864-939-9015 or by email, on Facebook or Twitter.

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