BMW’s North American manufacturing plant – a project that would spark an unprecedented period of economic development in the City of Greer – wasn’t yet a twinkle in the Upstate’s eye when the South Carolina Ports Authority purchased a large tract of land near the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in 1983.
The Ports Authority watched and waited as BMW’s arrival in 1992 made Upstate South Carolina – particularly Greer – an important hub for transportation and industry. The next two decades in the city saw improvements in infrastructure, local industrial growth, and a population boom.
When global trading slowly recovered following the international economic downturn in 2008-09 (a period during which global trade plummeted 30 percent relative to GDP according to the National Bureau of Economic) it brought with it such concerns as overcrowding at the port, negative effects on highways and the environment, fuel prices, and federal restrictions on truck drivers that would limit future container transport.
In the summer of 2012, the S.C. Ports Authority Board of Directors sent a message that the time was right to not only address those infrastructure and transportation concerns but also to aggressively pursue new cargo. It approved funding for the South Carolina Inland Port through both S.C. Ports and Norfolk Southern Railway.
Norfolk Southern played a key role in convincing the Virginia Ports Authority to build an inland port in Front Royal, 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., in 1989. Generally recognized as the first successful inland port in the U.S., that port helped facilitate the rise in popularity of intermodal transportation – using multiple means of shipping such as rail, ships and trucks – due to rising costs associated with the transport of goods from docks.
It also proved to be an economic boon for Front Royal. During the last two decades, 39 major companies including Rubbermaid, Family Dollar, Red Bull, Coors, and Home Depot have located near the port, investing $747 million and developing more than 8.5 million square feet of space. The activity has created more than 8,000 jobs in Front Royal.
With an intermodal train that wraps through Charleston on its way to Atlanta and back, Norfolk Southern was prepared to service another inland port. Its tracks were already adjacent to the port property in Greer.
“This is an exciting project for the Ports Authority, the state of South Carolina, and the Southeast region,” said Jack Ellenberg, vice president of cargo development for S.C. Ports. “Economic development is really a team sport and the same can be said about the inland port.”
Assembling the team
Eyes around the world were on Greer on March 1, 2013, when dignitaries gathered to praise the project and turn dirt. As each speaker, from Gov. Nikki Haley to Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Tim Scott, touched on the importance of the inland port as an economic engine for both the region and state, the one term on which everyone agreed was fast track.
“We see it as a game-changer for the port and the state of South Carolina,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of S.C. Ports. “The I-85 corridor, centered on the Greenville/Spartanburg area, is projected to be the fastest-growing part of the Southeast over the next 20 years. This facility will be a further catalyst to the development of an enhanced distribution hub in this area.”
In addition to developing approximately 40 acres of the site for the inland port, a concurrent project made the task even more daunting. BMW Manufacturing, already one of the Port of Charleston’s top clients, became the inland port’s anchor tenant when the company moved its export operations to a new 413,000-square-foot building adjacent to the Inland Port. The move created more than 300 new jobs.
“To bring the inland port to fruition on such a tight time schedule really involved just about every department in the city. Building and Codes was a part of the permitting process and worked with the many different contractors and entities that were on site. We had to have fire and police prepared for ingress and egress to make sure all elements of the site worked. The administration worked to make sure questions from the public and the news media were being answered. It was a challenge,” Mayor Rick Danner said.
The Building and Development Standards Department, in particular, was tasked with keeping the massive project on track while meeting deadlines for all other projects in the city. Staff expedited plan reviews, processed permits, and performed inspections. During site visits, inspectors used iPads to review the most recently approved plans.
To keep residents informed about the Inland Port project, representatives from the S.C. Ports Authority, Norfolk Southern and the S.C. Department of Transportation joined City of Greer and Greer CPW officials at a two-hour session at the Cannon Centre on June 28. Topics included the project’s design, timeline, and routing of tractor-trailers to and from the site. The Greer Development Corporation, Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, and Duke Power were also key contributors to the project.
S.C. Ports followed up with a meeting in September at Greer City Hall specifically for residents surrounding the Inland Port.
By the time the Inland Port opened for business, the construction tab alone included moving 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt, installing 15,000 feet of storm drain and 25,000 feet of electrical conduit, and pouring 37 acres of roller-compacted concrete that is 13 inches thick in spots.
“With any economic development project of this magnitude, having the support of partners is absolutely critical,” Ellenberg said. “If you look at the level of support we’ve had from the City of Greer, it was phenomenal. It helped us maintain our schedule, which was critical for our customers.”
Reaping the Benefits
The inland port brings distinct advantages for all of the project partners.
Officials estimated that the Inland Port is expected to handle approximately 40,000 containers in its first year and officials believe that, at maximum capacity, the facility will annually handle as many as 100,000 containers for rail transport.
Transporting goods by rail will annually remove approximately 25,000 tractor-trailers from the busy I-26 corridor between Charleston and Spartanburg. That means less fuel will be burned and state highways will experience less wear and tear.
The inland port, combined with an industry trend of launching larger ships that will be accommodated by the expanded Panama Canal in 2015, gives the Port of Charleston a significant advantage according to Ellenberg.
“Ships that big are limited in ports they can call on, so they rely on the inland infrastructure. Five hundred miles from Greer, South Carolina you reach 94 million consumers. That’s why we think Greer has a tremendous opportunity for job creation and job growth,” he said. “It isn’t unrealistic to think that product that comes in via rail to Greer will be going out by truck to that 94 million population.”
Companies also experience savings because the inland port has 552 spaces to store empty shipping containers. In the past, importing goods from the Port of Charleston required two-way charges, paying to bring the full container in, and then paying again to send the empty container back. Trains now entering and leaving the inland port are more efficient, carrying almost no empty containers.
In addition to rail and road shipping options, Greer offers an important advantage not found at other inland ports – easy access to the freight runway at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport just two miles away. Adding air freight to the mix creates the opportunity for a company importing through the Port of Charleston to easily ship goods anywhere in the country.
“The Port (of Charleston) is a key piece in the economic development puzzle and the inland port in Greer is a great addition to our state’s logistics network,” South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said. “The Upstate, in particular, has a high concentration of companies that are heavy exporters. This facility will help streamline their supply chains and encourage additional growth and investment.”
In the first year following the groundbreaking, the Greer Development Corporation fielded more than 200 inquiries from companies interested in locating near the inland port. Those inquiries have led to more than 22 prospect visits. G&P Trucking announced plans to acquire a 10-acre site near the port. International manufacturer Bosch Security Systems announced in August that it plans to open a 150,000-square-foot distribution center and begin operations in December.
As the inland port attracts more blue chip companies interested in warehousing and global distribution, officials realize new jobs and revenue will follow.
“I think what’s happened here is we have formed a partnership with South Carolina Ports Authority, Norfolk Southern, and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport that can yield incredible results in the future,” said Reno Deaton, executive director of the Greer Development Corporation. “It gives us the opportunity to give companies an opportunity to now see it in action. I think it’s a compelling story to companies wanting to use this facility and invest in our community.”
The Municipal Association of South Carolina recognized the City of Greer’s work to expedite the inland port project, presenting the city in July with the first Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Award for Economic Development. Danner said completion of the inland port is just the first step in the project.
“Eventually you’re going to see the kind of growth that will turn the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg area into the single metropolitan industrial area that people had envisioned for many years,” he said. “I think that will come to fruition in the next two decades.”
It’s the sort of return expected on a project in which S.C, Ports, Norfolk Southern, and the City of Greer and Greer CPW invested more than $50 million.
Money well spent? Newsome has no doubt.
“The Inland Port would not have happened without the ‘can do’ attitude of the City of Greer and other local entities. We have formed a valuable partnership which will bring big benefits in the future as far as the economic development of the area.” Newsome said. “I think we’ll look back on this as an extremely good investment.”