The South Carolina I-77 Alliance comprises the economic development leaders in five counties that have come together to jointly promote and highlight the unique business and manufacturing opportunities that exist from Charlotte to Columbia.
offering their own mix of attributes that make them the right fit for a growing, diverse mix of enterprises and families deciding to relocate and expand and make their lives there.
We decided to use this space to highlight each of the Alliance counties. This month, the focus is on Chester County, nestled between Charlotte to the north and Columbia to the south and home to $1.2 billion in capital investment and 2,995 new jobs since 2011.
Here, we ask Karlisa Parker Dean, Director of Chester County Economic Development, to tell us more about her community, about what she sees now, and to look in her crystal ball for the future. She’s been with the county since 1998 and took on her current role in 2004.
What makes Chester County unique?
Karlisa Parker Dean: Location, for starters. We’re 42 minutes from Charlotte’s major international airport, about 168 miles to the Port of Charleston, and ideally located near three major metro areas: Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg and Columbia.
That interstate connectivity puts us in a unique position to attract and serve industry while offering access to the attractions that make us, as a part of the region, shine – NFL and major college sports, museums, theaters, and music – you name it – along with the slower pace of life that comes with being a rural community. We have an abundance of land available, and along with small-town and country living, we have outdoor activities and attractions, including state parks, lakes and rivers, the Chester Golf Club and Rocky Creek Sporting Clays. We haven’t grown to the extent that you can’t see the stars at night.
Where do you see Chester County in 10 to 20 years compared to now?
Karlisa Parker Dean: I think our industry base will have grown, anchored and bolstered by the manufacturing partners we currently have but with other industry sectors taking advantage of the opportunity here for headquarters, back office operations, financial services and other new areas for us. Plus, I think we’ll see more advanced manufacturing.
I’d like to see more residential options in Chester County. However, it’s also important that we learn from the experience of other areas that have grown so quickly that they lost their rural feel. We don’t want to lose that charm. Smart growth is what we should aim for.
What national and state issues affect Chester County and how?
Karlisa Parker Dean: While I tend to deal with the local issues, I am very concerned about some of the tariffs being placed on items we export and import, and how that’s going to affect our existing industrial partners. We have about 50 right now, in a wide range of industries.
While we focus on Chester County, of course, it’s important to remember how much we are part of a global economy. I remember walking the Paris Air Show and Farnborough Air Show in England and seeing several of our companies there. That was an eye-opening moment and very exciting.
We have both national and international names here, including Giti Tire, ATI, Guardian Glass, PPG Industries, Boise Cascade, ThyssenKrupp, Outukumpu Stainless and the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) 90-acre research center, the only facility of its kind in the world. We’re proud to have them and they’re proud to be here.
There were seven flag poles in front of our office along Interstate 77 and for a time we displayed our manufacturing partner’s flags. The fact they allowed us to display their flags was a point of satisfaction and pride for Chester County.
What challenges does Chester County face in terms of quality of life and economic development and how are they being addressed?
Karlisa Parker Dean: Quality of life can be a complex subject. We have people who are OK with the way things are now, and don’t want change, and that’s understandable. Our charge at Chester County Economic Development is to create capital investment and jobs for citizens of the county.
For us to continue successfully in that charge, we will continue to work with the Chester County School Superintendent, School Board, and York Technical College to offer educational opportunities and workforce training. We must also be able to offer suitable housing opportunities for those who wish to live, work and play here.
We’re very happy with all our existing industrial partners and salute them. We continue to work to attract new, quality companies here.
Our population right now is about 33,000 people, and we have approximately 16,000 in the workforce. We are fortunate that our location places us in a very large labor shed with a workforce of roughly 1.2 million workers. External research has verified this geography extends north to Charlotte and surrounding suburbs and south to South Carolina’s capital of Columbia.
In our history, Chester County moved from an agrarian economy to textiles and then lost well over 3,000 jobs when that industry collapsed. That started a mass exodus that now sees about 9,500 of our residents drive to work elsewhere each day.
An upscale apartment complex has been approved and will offer housing opportunities for those working here that are just starting their careers or those that enjoy the freedom that apartment living offers. There are housing sub-divisions in the planning stages that may offer opportunity to residents that may be first time homebuyers, those looking for an upgrade, and for those that prefer living in a sub-division rather than living rurally. So, that’s a hopeful sign, being able to offer more residential options and employment opportunities would make us more attractive to people who now go to work outside the county.
What opportunities does Chester County have in terms of quality life and economic development and how are they being seized?
Karlisa Parker Dean: For industrial recruitment, we’ve identified 30 new sites and are in the process of ranking them. Those that rank high will be considered for certification as industrial sites for sale and development. These sites will be in addition to the 11,000 acres of industrial-zoned land available in Chester County. We had seven (7) sites complete the Duke Energy Site Readiness Program and we had ten (10) sites Certified with the SC Site Certification Program -three (3) of those which have been purchased by industrial clients.
Consultants and the decision makers tend to go to sites that are prepared and certified. We’re lucky that we have landowners who understand the importance of completing the studies of their property, participating in that effort and, in many cases, will hold their properties until the right client comes along.
In fact, we have a great relationship with the private stakeholders in our county through the Chester Development Association, the private arm of economic development. We have been fortunate to have the public-private synergy that’s been very positive for our success in the past and will be for our future growth.
Having a highly-skilled and flexible workforce will be critical to our industrial recruitment. With the collaboration, partnership and participation of York Technical College – Chester Campus, Chester County School District, and local Industrial Partners = The Manufacturing Dual Enrollment Program, I believe we are heading in the right direction. This program offers high school students an opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and a certificate in different programs. Those young men and women may be offered job opportunities at graduation.
Put all these positives together and I see a bright future ahead for Chester County.