Clayton: Net manufacturing losses turned to net gains and regional identity

By John Clayton, Staff Reporter
Published on Sunday, October 25, 2015

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John Clayton is a columnist and reporter for GreerToday.com.

John Clayton is a columnist and reporter for GreerToday.com.



Somewhere beyond all the impressive numbers contained in the economic impact study on the S.C. Ports Authority is one subtle truth: We, as South Carolinians, have reinvented ourselves and are no longer at the behest of King Cotton and international trade deals.

“We saw a major decline in textiles throughout the nineties and really because of that a decrease in manufacturing through 2007, even though automotives were coming on with the arrival of BMW in 1994,” University of South Carolina Moore School of Business  Professor Joseph Von Nessen said. “Now, we’re beginning to see gains since 2010 as the automotive cluster and as more advanced manufacturing industries have begun taking off.”

Of the more than $50 billion in economic impact proclaimed by the SCPA study, just more than half of it is concentrated in the Upstate and around the automotive industry that found a home here after textiles left not to return.

It was a slow climb. The manufacturing losses were enormous, even with a burgeoning automotive industry imported from Germany filling part of the void. Net manufacturing losses have finally turned to net gains, and the region has a new identity.

“As South Carolina becomes more of a global hotspot for advanced manufacturing, we see many marquee companies, many more that are coming here,” Von Nessen said. “(The Inland Port) provides just another tool, another arrow in the quiver for the Upstate to continue to develop.”

Most of the mills have long been shuttered. Some of the buildings have been repurposed as chic loft-style apartments or office buildings, but most are closed, the looms long silent or sold and shipped off to another country along with the bulk of the American textile industry and hope for decent wages and better lives for Upstate residents.

It’s taken more than two decades, but we’re finding ourselves again. We’re making things again that we can be proud of with a work force that is better educated for more technologically advanced task masters than the loom and the weave.

BMW came to the Upstate, setting up shop near the Greenville-Spartanburg county line, in Greer, in 1994.

It was just in time.

As a boy, I rode with my grandfather most afternoons to the Lyman Mill to pick up my grandmother and great aunt – sometimes both my grandmothers.

Shift change was a wondrous thing, with a wave of people filing out of the gate and a like wave marching in for second shift.

Three shifts a day, five days a week white smoke from the stack filled the air along with the pungent smell of dye and mystery chemicals that did who knows what to cloth and lungs.

My grandfather had retired from the dye plant early and stopped smoking the unfiltered Camels he’d lit since he was 14 on doctor’s orders to save his own lungs.

At the same time – around 3 o’clock – shift changes like that one were happening all over the Upstate in Greer at Victor Mill, Startex, Spartanburg, Greenville.

After more than 20 years as vagabond reporter and columnist, I returned to my Upstate home in 2005, finding everything was not as I’d left it.

At 3’oclock, places such as Inman and Lyman were closer to ghost towns than the bustling communities they’d been when there were shifts to change.

Unemployment was up, wages were low when you could find them, but beyond all of that an identity that had been shaped around the textile industry was obsolete.

An automotive industry born in Europe but raised in the South changed all that.

“It’s been exciting to see what was known as a strong manufacturing area reclaim that mantle,” said Greer Mayor Rick Danner, whose town was once as linked to textiles as any of its neighbors.

Danner noted longstanding relationships with European companies that date back to the heyday of textiles in the area and believes more support and related industries add a region that is becoming more dynamic and diverse than it’s ever been.

The wait was long, but the good things finally came.

 John Clayton is a columnist and reporter for GreerToday.com.





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