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How Richland County’s economic boom foreshadows South Carolina’s future

Josh Olalde

If you live (or have lived) in South Carolina’s Upstate or Lowcountry, you likely know the two areas not to be strangers to change and growth over time, a natural process for most any place with plans to expand.

But, in recent years, a developing trend permeating the Midlands has been giving its longtime residents a particularly harsh headache. It’s undergoing growth at a far faster rate than it’s used to.

“It’s kind of disgusting to see a beautiful town turned into some metropolis that it was never meant to be,” says Anna Rumsey, who’s lived in Blythewood for 40 years.

In that time, she’s seen more change in the last decade than the first three.

“It’s the biggest hodgepodge mess I’ve seen in my entire life,” Rumsey admits, speaking with a sense of sorrow for a place she once saw as a sanctuary.

Rumsey, among others, is struggling to come to terms with the 42 new developments Richland County has seen in the last 10 years, according to the state department of commerce. 17 of those developments were announced within the last three years.

The recent activity has rapidly picked up the pace of economic investment in Richland County. Since the start of the pandemic, over $3.1 billion in economic developments have been planned (if not already started) in the area. In the preceding decade, the county only saw around $974 million in investments, which were mostly smaller-scale.

Roger Hovis, a Blythewood resident of over two decades, is taking notice of the changes, too.

“How did this happen so fast?” Hovis asks, seemingly overwhelmed by the increasing change close to his home, “It really wasn’t on anyone’s radar.”

To answer the question of Richland’s recent business boom, I turned to economic development experts in Richland County, neighboring Lexington County, and the state department of commerce.

They all said just about the same thing: the profit’s in the people.

But the workforce availability in the Midlands isn’t the only thing driving developers to the area. Harry Lightsey, the Secretary of Commerce for the state commerce department, says it’s the expanding electric car business finding a catalyst in the Carolinas.

“We qualify as an auto powerhouse. That’s something that’s very important to us,” Lightsey says.

It’s a reputation fueled mainly by the over 500 car companies around the state, including prominent names like BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.

With those facilities in the upstate and lowcountry, lending themselves to a $27 billion annual and expanding industry in SC, a new manufacturer, Scout Motors, is making room in the Midlands.

Scout Motors is an electric car and truck manufacturer planting roots in Richland County, Its recently announced $2 billion facility in Blythewood will be one of the largest economic developments our state has seen in the last decade.

But with most of the competition for cars lying outside the Midlands, why Richland County?

Economic experts like Jeff Ruble, the economic development director in Richland County, say the lack of EV manufacturing in the Midlands makes it an untapped market.

“We were ripe for development,” Ruble says, “I think we were a really strong candidate for a mega project.”

The project itself was solidified almost as soon as it was announced. It only took Governor McMaster two weeks to sign a bill approving Scout Motors’ EV plant.

Roger Hovis says it was all too sudden.

“It is a bit out of character,” Hovis says, having seen plenty of new developments during his time living in Blythewood, “This is a speedy process, we’re talking about something that was announced not even two months ago.”

Those (less than) two months were too little time for Anna Rumsey, who feels like Richland rushed the passing of the project.

“It’s like it was a done deal and we had no input, whatsoever. None,” says Rumsey.

But it only became a done deal when the state signed off on it. Behind the scenes, Ruble says, was a decade’s worth of work planning and mapping out the Scout Motors site.

“The legwork for that started back in 2012 or 2013,” Ruble says, “We started acquiring the land for Scout Motors back in 2014.”

Nine years and two billion dollars later, Lightsey says the Scout Motors plant is only likely to attract more attention, painting a larger picture of South Carolina as a staple spot for electric car manufacturers in a growing industry.

“The announcement really brings more of a global focus on the Midlands part of our state,” Lightsey says.

Hovis, on the other hand, says the 4,000 jobs accompanied with Scout’s facility will invite more people to the area than Blythewood can handle.

“The town of Blythewood hardly has that many people,” Hovis jokingly points out, speaking of the town’s quaint nature.

After reaching out to Scout Motors about the plans for its development in Blythewood, I have yet to receive a response. Apart from the work in progress, it’s unclear what else is being planned for Richland County and the surrounding areas.

But as building begins in Blythewood, some, like Rumsey, hope for a slowing down of the growing town.

“We need to stop and think about where we’re going here, just for the next generation, if nothing else,” Rumsey says.

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.