MARION COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - In a community where roughly 1 out of 10 is unemployed, and almost 30% live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an announcement that hundreds of jobs are coming to town is a major deal. That's why when a company said it would do just that and still hasn't, WMBF went digging for answers.
It was the biggest job announcement leaders said Marion County had ever seen.
"It certainly was something the community was looking forward to," said the executive director of the Marion County Economic Development Council, Julie Norman.
215 new jobs and a $54 million dollar investment into the county is what Essex Holdings, a Miami based company, agreed to bring to Marion. In front of a packed crowd of community members, councilman, even the governor the new partnership was announced in April of 2013. The company was to move into the Old Blumenthal Mill on US 76 and expand; bringing jobs to the US that right now are abroad. Those hired in Marion would package rice to be sent across the country. It's work that locals say is needed.
"I see a lot of people walking that need jobs, I have to go to Florence go that far to get a job," said Antonio McElroy, a Marion County resident.
But two and a half years later, the mill is still empty. So where are the jobs?
Essex agreed to the conditions of a rural infrastructure fund agreement with the state and county, effective December 2012. The state provided Marion with 1.2 million dollars in grant funds to give to Essex to get the building up and running and Essex would provide the jobs and economic investment. Essex has until December of 2017 to fulfill its end of the deal but we found out the global resource company has fallen on hard times, according to Marion County, and its future in this building is uncertain.
The mayor of Marion says it's a big blow for this community.
"It was a huge let down to our citizens but we still hope and pray it will materialize," said Mayor Bobby L. Davis.
The county says if that doesn't happen the state will likely go after Essex Holdings for reimbursement of the 1.2 million. Emails, phone calls and a text to the company's CEO, Dr. Navin Xavier, to find out what's going on have gone unanswered.
Despite what happens with Essex, Marion County is actually making huge strides when it comes to jobs. 5 years ago the unemployment rate was 17.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today the unemployment rate is 10.2%
"It's still higher than the state average but it's coming down. We are no longer number one in unemployment in South Carolina and we expect to see that trend continue," said Norman who also says they've seen nearly 400 jobs over the past two years and about 28 million in capital investments. Some of that is thanks to companies like SoPacko, who committed to expand its production of packing foods to nearly 200 jobs. Quality Farms, a processor and converter of beer, food and wine waste into ethanol promised to establish in Marion County and bring dozens of jobs in 2014. And Precision S.E., a Myrtle Beach manufacturer of plastic parts committed to expand and bring 140 new jobs in 5 years back in 2014. Even the mayor says he's pounding the pavement to bring jobs to the community.
"I went so far as calling Sonic Headquarters myself to try to get them to come back to Marion," said Davis.
The job market in Marion is typical of a rural community. Factory, farm and automotive industry and companies are being lured with some pretty good deals. Incentives packages vary but you're typically talking tax breaks and like in the case of Essex Holdings a free building with money to get it up and running.
It's a win win for everyone when jobs come to town.
"It's a way of living, you got to have a job to survive," said resident, Brad Cooper.
"It's slowly climbing, I'd like to see it reach higher heights," said McElroy.
But whether it's 215 jobs promised or just a couple every job counts.