3-part series explores SC’s BMW plant, how NC can get auto manufacturing plant

GREER, S.C. -- Paige Stephenson sums up the way the upstate of South Carolina feels about the last 25 years with BMW in their community, in six simple words.

“I can’t think of a downside,” she says – and she’d be in a position to know, as the CEO of the United Way of the Piedmont, based in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

But what you get when you spend a few days in the upstate is how similar that area was 25 years ago to the Triad.

“Absolutely, I see a lot of similarities in the areas,” says Dan Hamilton, a long-time realtor in the upstate who is also a state representative.

What you also hear, from those who both were involved in recruiting BMW’s first automotive assembly plant outside of Germany and those who’ve seen the benefits in the quarter-century since, is that the Triad can do the same thing, if we recruit a project like the proposed Toyota-Mazda plant for which the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite is a finalist.

“I think North Carolina has all the assets, the workforce capacity to do what we’re doing,” says Jermaine Whirl, the vice president for economic development at Greenville Technical College, which is still instrumental in training not just some of the 9,000 workers at BMW but the nearly 40,000 who work at the 40 companies that have moved to the area to supply the BMW plant. For Dr. Whirl, it comes down to old fashioned teamwork and hard work. “Leadership, collaboration and communication. If you have those three things, the sky’s the limit,” he says.

John Lummus agrees. Lummus is the CEO of the Upstate Alliance, a public/private partnership that works on economic development in the area. He knows the Triad – he graduated from Wake Forest University – and echoes the idea that the entire state has to work together to recruit a project like the Toyota-Mazda plant. That was, he says, a secret for South Carolina winning BMW.

“It didn’t matter to the people of Charleston or Columbia that this was going to go to the upstate because they knew it would be great for the state. That’s what you’ve got to do,” Lummus says.

Because what you’ll get is transformative.

“We have welders that are associated with BMW who are coming out with two-year degrees, making $60,000-70,000 a year,” says Allen Smith, the CEO of the Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce – another guy who knows our state, having grown up in Greenville and graduated from East Carolina University and whose wife is from Greensboro. “You’re talking about a generational-changing opportunity for the people of the Triad.”

In fact, the upstate is filled with people who have connections to our area. Mark Owens is the head of the Greer Chamber of Commerce – the city in which the BMW plant sits – but he is moving to head up the Winston-Salem Chamber in December of 2017. He thinks this kind of project is perfect for the Triad.

“When you’re looking at companies that can impact your community for years and years to come, I think the opportunity is there to say yes,” says Owens.

“I would roll out the red carpet,” says Stephenson with a laughs. “I would definitely look at every way I could make my community be attractive to them because they will have an enormous impact.”

“Absolutely. I think what people in the Triad have to think about is, if you think you know the impact that this project will have, you have no idea. You have to think bigger,” says Smith.

See how the upstate won BMW, the kind of effect it had on their community and what they say we have to do to win a similar project, in this special series of the Buckley Report.