Region Economy Recovering After Tough 2020

FLORENCE, S.C. – Counties in South Carolina’s northeastern corner reported over half a billion dollars in new investment with nearly a thousand new jobs created, despite a challenging year brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and a temporary spike in unemployment.
“With everything 2020 threw at us, our region showed we are resilient by having more investment than we did in 2019 and nearly as many new jobs created,” former S.C. Lieutenant Governor and North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA) Executive Committee Chairman Yancey McGill said. “It’s really a testament to the hardworking people we have here.”
According to the NESA – the non-profit regional economic development group serving Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Horry, Georgetown, Marion, Marlboro, and Williamsburg counties – the region had $572.5 million in new investment in 2020, as well as the creation of 911 new jobs.
While the region had respectable investment and job numbers in 2020, it did see some major swings in unemployment, especially, after seeing record lows in 2019 that dropped all the way to 2.1 percent in September of that year.
As 2020 began the region was still experiencing low unemployment numbers, but regional unemployment surged from 3.8 percent in March to an all-time high of 15.9 percent in April during pandemic related closures.
“That’s a record-breaking, month to month, spike of 12.1 percentage points,” McGill said. “This has a particularly harsh effect on labor-intensive service industries, especially those that required face-to-face interaction.”
Of the 105,000 total initial unemployment insurance claims made in the region between March and December, approximately 21.3 percent were from the accommodation and food services industry, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. Initial unemployment insurance claims peaked in April (37,718), which corresponded with the large spike in the unemployment rate.
McGill pointed out that while the region’s unemployment rate rebounded to 5.7 percent as of December 2020, it has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.
“I don’t think the rates will return to pre-COVID levels until we are fully past this pandemic,” he said. “When is that? No one really knows, and I won’t venture to make that guess, but we are trending in the right direction and we are working hard to make sure we do our part to continue progressing forward.”
Regionally, there were 23 announcements in 2020. Of those announcements, 11 were existing industry expansions and 12 were new locations.
“We continue to see a good 50/50 split of new and existing industry announcements,” McGill said. “This is a great thing, because it shows that companies want to be here in the NESA region and it shows once they are here they grow.”
Looking forward, McGill said he is cautiously optimistic about the year ahead.
“With the uncertainties still being out there relating to the pandemic, I’m not sure how different this year will be,” he said. “Despite the travel restrictions, we have still had a steady flow of inquiries and we, along with our county partners, continue to adapt what we are doing to put the region’s best foot forward.”
McGill added that the NESA staff has developed several tools including – a regional virtual tour, 360 degree site and building tours, and a regional data tool – that have helped them adapt to more demand for digital content. All of these tools along with NESA’s 2020 Annual Report can be found on their website, www.nesasc.org.

County-by-County Updates and Outlooks

Chesterfield County
Population: 45,650
Unemployment Rate: 4.9% (2.4 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $38,157
GDP: $ 1,474,951,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 3
2020 In Review: “Chesterfield County finished 2020 with a few announcements despite the pandemic,” Chesterfield County Economic Development Executive Director Kim Burch said. “Our Economic Development office moved to a new location the day the county locked the doors to the public. We are very proud of our new office and have a much better place to host our clientele.”
2021 Expectations: “The County is moving forward with our partnership with Marlboro Development Team to build a new 100,000 square foot spec building in the Lynches River Industrial Park, also known as, the Belk Property north of Pageland. Additionally, the county will be building an entrance road into the park, which will give access to this new spec space. Our hopes are that this new spec building will help us to compete with projects across the state in 2021 as available building space continues to dwindle. With this in mind, we see a bright future for 2021.

Darlington County
Population: 66,618
Unemployment Rate: 5.1% (2.3 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $46,424
GDP: $2,567,760,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 2
2020 In Review: “Darlington County had two major announcements in 2020, Sonoco and Georgia-Pacific, totaling $228 million in capital investment,” Darlington County Economic Development Executive Director Lewis Brown said. “These expansion projects are currently under construction and are expected to be complete in early 2021.”
2021 Expectations: “Given the promising results of the three COVID 19 vaccines now available to the public and the reduced number of COVID cases we anticipate the economy to strengthen in 2021. Our new Economic Development team will be working closely with existing industry and an increased focus on industry recruitment. We look forward to promoting Darlington County and displaying why Darlington County offers a business-friendly environment with a tremendous quality of life. “

Dillon County
Population: 30,479
Unemployment Rate: 5.4% (1.9 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $34,308
GDP: $766,478,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 1
2020 In Review: “Dillon County had a good year for 2020, based on the Covid-19 issues,” said County Administrator, W. Clay Young. “We are currently completing the two grants that we received from EDA to develop a Master Plan for the area around Inland Port Dillon (IPD) and, a county wide water and wastewater needs assessment. Huber Engineered Wood, LLC, is proceeding with its investment of $30 million and the creation of 30 new jobs. Equus (Capital Partners, Ltd.) completed its 373,100 sq. foot building in late 2020 and is in the process of contracting with a tenant for its lease. Marlboro Development Team has also started constructing its new spec building near IPD. Dillon County also received another grant from EDA to complete a traffic study around the port and the feasibility of having Highway 34 from Long Street to Harllees Bridge Road widened to four lanes at Exit 190 on I-95.
2021 Expectations: “2021 is shaping up to be one of the most productive years we have ever had in Dillon County. Both the Equus and Marlboro Development Team spec buildings near Inland Port Dillon should have tenants by early fall and we are currently working with two companies in the county on their expansions for 2021. The county should also receive some funding towards phase 1 of the four-lane widening project of Highway 34. We also have some new commercial and retail businesses along I-95 that are proceeding with their proposed projects.”

Florence County
Population: 138,293
Unemployment Rate: 4.6% (2.2 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $41,337
GDP: $6,893,095,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 7
2020 in Review: “Despite the challenges of the pandemic, 2020 was a great year for Florence County,” Florence County Economic Development Executive Director Joe King said. “A strong mix of existing industry expansions and new industry location decisions occurred in our county throughout 2020. Florence County had seven total announcements last year totaling over $225 million of new investment and the creation of 188 jobs.”
2021 Expectations: “Florence County understands shovel-ready industrial sites and available buildings are essential for future growth. We plan to continue our product development initiatives that began last year. We anticipate multiple announcements in 2021 from both existing industries expanding and new industries establishing a presence in Florence County.”

Georgetown County
Population: 62,680
Unemployment Rate: 5.7% (2.4 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $41,434
GDP: $2,316,755,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 1
2020 In Review: 2020 was a challenging year; however, we had a record level of interest and activity,” Georgetown County Economic Development Executive Director Brian Tucker said.
“Two of our existing industries, Interfor Lumber and 3V Chemical, completed expansions and we began the development of the Pennyroyal Industrial Park, which is 1,000 acres and geared toward heavier industrial prospects.”
2021 Expectations: “Despite the pandemic, we expect to finalize several projects in 2021. Our investment in product development is paying off in every area. We expect to finalize deals for our Petigru property, sell our current spec building, and sell another 40 acres for two projects in the Georgetown County Business Center. We will also break ground on the first phase of infrastructure improvements in our Pennyroyal Industrial Park and we are entertaining several prospects looking at this site. Finally, we have partnered with a local developer to break ground on 80,000 sq. ft. of multi-tenant industrial flex space. All things considered 2020 was a very good year and we expect 2021 to be even better.”

Horry County
Population: 354,081
Unemployment Rate: 6.1% (2.8 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $36,472
GDP: $11,748,427,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 3
2020 In Review: “2020 was a year of overcoming adversity, new experiences and continued success,” Horry County Economic Development Director Sandy Davis said. “Despite COVID and it being an election year, our project pipeline remained strong. The Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (MBREDC) announced three new companies in Horry County! Thank you to all of our recruitment partners for the support and assistance to make 2020 a successful year.”
2021 Expectations: “2021 may be a record year for Horry County. It seems people are ready to move forward since the election is over and the pandemic vaccine is becoming more available. Expansion and relocation opportunities are very strong in Horry County and we are excited to see what this year holds.”

Marion County
Population: 30,657
Unemployment Rate: 7.2% (3.8 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $33,066
GDP: $597,293,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 6
2020 In Review: “Marion County enjoyed tremendous success in 2020, ranking #4 in the state for the most projects announced and #8 for most jobs announced,” Marion County Economic Development Executive Director Dr. Julie Norman said. “While the whole world experienced unprecedented upheaval due to the COVID pandemic, Marion County’s resiliency was certainly on display.”
2021 Expectations: “I expect we will see continued success in the region largely because of our transportation infrastructure, proximity to major markets, and available sites and buildings. I also believe new opportunities will emerge in 2021. As a non-metropolitan area with abundant space, low-cost of living and broadband expansion underway we have a tremendous opportunity to attract remote workers and working-age adults desiring an alternative to overpopulated areas with a high cost of living.”

Marlboro County
Population: 26,118
Unemployment Rate: 7.5% (3.8 points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $39,953
GDP: $771,535,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 0
2020 In Review: “In 2020, Marlboro County focused on keeping our existing industries as healthy as possible in the COVID environment,” Marlboro County Administrator Ron Munnerlyn said. “Several incentive extensions were completed and small expansions were facilitated.”

2021 Expectations: “For 2021, a number of future focused activities are in progress – the construction of a speculative building, the development of new greenfield sites, and the revamp of the local ED board. We hope to see the end of the pandemic and to be prepared for the economic boom we anticipate will happen on the other side of this crisis.”

Williamsburg County
Population: 30,368
Unemployment Rate: 6.4% (2.1points YOY)
Average Annual Wages: $39,496
GDP: $750,009,000
Total Announcements in 2020: 0

2020 In Review: “2020 was a tough year for Williamsburg County, as many rural areas were ravaged by business closures and high unemployment rates,” Williamsburg County Economic Development Executive Director Gilleon Frieson said. “But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. We’re continuing to strive for economic success.”

2021 Expectations: “We’ve begun site development on a parcel in the Commerce Centre South in anticipation and preparation to build a new spec building. A lot of economic development activity is occurring on the 52 corridor between South Florence and Kingstree and we want to capitalize on the opportunities to attract new industry to this area.”