Marion County, South Carolina, is a rural community located less than an hour from the vacation mecca of Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand. Interstate 95 and several major highways run alongside the community, providing easy access to the surrounding region—and whisking as many as 16 million tourists through Marion County each summer on their way to the beach.
A new inland port is being built 15 miles away in Dillon, South Carolina, attracting new industry to the area. “We think this is going to have tremendous impact on the region,” says Economic Development Director Dr. Julie Norman. In addition to capitalizing on the tourism industry, county officials are working hard to bring more manufacturers into the community, which has historically been dependent on the textile and tobacco industries. “We are going to continue focusing on manufacturing, particularly now that we have the prospect of an inland port coming soon.”
Currently, Marion County’s largest industrial employer is SoPakCo, one of the top providers of MRE (meals ready to eat) and government rations to the U.S. Military. In 2009, the company opened a new multi-million dollar food processing and packaging plant in the county to produce products for the shelf-stable, heat-and-serve meal market.
AVM Industries is the county’s second largest employer. A member of Crowne Automotive Group, the manufacturer is a leading automotive parts supplier. The community’s third largest employer, Beneteau, produces high-end boats. “So we have a little bit of everything, from food processing to luxury items,” Dr. Norman points out.
After years of losing ground, Marion County has begun to gain new traction in the manufacturing sector. “We have lost a tremendous amount of manufacturing in the last 15 years, but we are slowly starting to see a recovery. We have been able to attract [new manufacturers] and retain the ones that have been around a long time.” Recent newcomers include Best One Tire Service, Green Fence Recycling Corporation, and Quality Farms.
The county boasts a strong agricultural sector, making food processing a particularly good choice for recruitment into the community. “Agribusiness is very key to our economy and what we are trying to do is add value to that and take it to the next level. [We have to ask ourselves], ‘how can we add something, build on what we already know how to do?’” Marion County is already taking steps toward this goal and has certified a food processing site that will meet the industry’s stringent regulations.
Marion County is also capitalizing on its strong agricultural sector through the creation of the Pee Dee Agriporium™. The initiative currently includes a food hub, with plans to add a commercial kitchen incubator, a technical assistance center, and a retail store on the Hwy 501 property – the primary artery to Myrtle Beach. “The food hub is a place where we take care of marketing, aggregation and distribution of local produce,” Dr. Norman explains. “Farmers bring in produce, we store it and then transfer it to regional restaurants and grocers that are locally sourcing food. We have 2,000 restaurants and grocers along the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand and currently they get their produce from California; it doesn’t make sense to do that. We’d like to keep that revenue in the region, but the problem has been that the restaurants and grocers don’t have time to find the local produce and the farmers don’t have time to find the restaurants and grocers. So the food hub takes care of the aggregation of all the produce and marketing to all those restaurants and grocers and distributes it every day.”
Recently, Marion County has welcomed a new industry that is a complete change of pace for the manufacturing and agricultural anchored community. Hollywood has come to town, filming one movie after another in the rural county. Production crews originally had their sights set on Myrtle Beach, but the summer crowds and traffic interfered with filming, so they moved their operations inland. Marion County jumped at the opportunity, launching a lucrative relationship that continues to pay off for both parties.
What makes Marion County an ideal location for filming? “Number one, we don’t have the congestion here in Marion County that you would have along the Grand Strand, especially during the summer when you have so much traffic and [so many] tourists. Getting from one location to the next would be difficult [along the Grand Strand]. And secondly, Marion County just rolled out the red carpet for them. If they need a road closed to film a certain shot, we make that happen. If they need housing for their cast and crew, we make that happen for them.”
Marion County is also becoming a regional site for live performances. An old amphitheater has just been revitalized and now has the potential to draw thousands of tourists for each show. Formally known as The Carolina Amphitheater, the Swamp Fox Entertainment Complex has 20,000 seats—not including lawn seating—and 250 acres of land with designated areas for tent camping and RV parking, as well as on-site food and retail vending. Ideal for hosting large-scale, multi-day festivals, the outdoor entertainment complex is expected to draw locals as well as crowds from the nearby Grand Stand and beyond, providing a substantial boost to the local economy.
As new businesses move into Marion County, local officials are making sure that the community has the skilled workforce that employers need. “One of the things that is key to any new economic development project is the ability to have an available and skilled workforce,” Dr. Norman points out. “So we have a number of workforce programs to address our workforce challenges.” A new workforce development center is central to the initiative. “We took 5,000 square feet of a 30,000 square feet building on the campus of our vocational school, the Academy for Careers and Technology, and we converted it to a manufacturing space for workforce development. So, as we recruit new industry, we will be able to train new workers in advance on equipment that is relevant to their operations.” The space will also house an adult education office that will provide testing and support to people pursuing a GED. Housing both services under the same roof increases efficiency and creates new opportunities. “Individuals who lack a GED or need to be tested can have that done and at the same time can find out about what skills are being demanded by local industry and get that training there.”
The community’s workforce development efforts are already yielding exciting results. “We are proud to say we are a certified Work Ready Community™, which means that a percentage of our population has achieved a certain level of skills that are important to employers.”
Meanwhile, iMpact Marion County connects locals with employment and training opportunities, creating a win-win for businesses and potential employees. The grassroots program provides information and support related to job openings, training, transportation—anything that will help residents achieve their career goals. “We have done work to connect people to jobs, we have done fundraisers to expand transportation options for our citizens so that they can get to work. It is a way to reach out in a way that we have never been able to do before.” Marion County’s faith-based community, local leaders, and government officials have all come together to make iMpact Marion County a reality.
Marion County has a number of certified manufacturing sites, several of which are located in the community’s industrial park. “Having a certified site means that all of the due diligence and geotechnical work has been done in advance, so it really saves a prospect six to nine months of work,” Dr. Norman reports. “It proves that the site is good to go. You have all the infrastructure in place and you are not running into any surprises along the way.”
Marion County’s certified industrial sites, skilled workforce, prime location, and welcoming environment all work together to create an ideal place for manufacturing, as well as for out-of-the-box businesses such as the film industry. With a new port under construction just miles from the county border and business-friendly initiatives underway throughout the community, Marion County is well positioned to continue attracting a range of new opportunities.