Future Bright for Volvo, Charleston

In May of 2015, Volvo chose South Carolina to build its first plant in North America. Volvo will build its factory on a 2,800-acre parcel of the Camp Hall Industrial Campus near Ridgeville in Berkeley County.  It will be a 575-acre first phase development with an initial 2,000-worker assembly plant.   Volvo’s investment for its American presence in our home state will begin at $500 million.

Why Ridgeville?  Ridgeville is a small town with a population of approximately 2,000 people who live 12 miles northwest of Summerville.  Ridgeville is also 30 miles from a thriving port that currently exports more than 800 BMWs a day.  The proximity to a vital port that provides access overseas is a very important factor for Volvo.

Less discussed but another interesting part of the decision is available land.  The area provides a good blend of land to develop the commercial needs for Volvo while also being able to commit to preserve, restore and enhance 1,533 acres of wetlands on four tracts in the Dean Swamp and Walnut Branch watersheds.  A lot of the incentives that South Carolina offered were to help develop and ready the land for the commercial site while also providing the mitigation that has the support of environmentalists.  The Camp Hall Industrial Campus lured Volvo away from every other site considered in America and, most competitively, from a site in Georgia near Elabell and the Port of Savannah.

South Carolina already provides crucial training for automotive manufacturing with its ReadySC™ program.  This is a partnership between businesses and the state’s technical colleges that tailors training based on the desired skills needed as defined by each company in the program.  Trident Technical College is a leading participant with its campus not far from the Volvo site.  Volvo, therefore, can take advantage of an already existing recruiting and training program.

South Carolina and Berkeley County are also making and investing in this venture of more than $200 million.  We have to look at it as an investment in our future.  There are the 2,000 jobs provided over the next decade with a desire to grow to 4,000 by 2030.  Dr. Frank Hefner at the College of Charleston estimates that from the initial 2,000 jobs, more than 8,000 total jobs would be created and the plant would contribute around $4.8 billion in total economic output annually.

Katarina Fjording, vice president of purchasing and manufacturing for Volvo cars, provided an update and insight into Volvo at the recent Charleston Chamber of Commerce Economic Outlook Conference.  She has already built three car factories from the ground up and is now in charge of the manufacturing site in Berkeley County.  Although early setbacks were caused by the October floods, the construction at the site is back on track.  Fjording praised South Carolinians who stepped up and gave Volvo a lot of help during this difficult initial period.  Our work ethic is impressive, but only to be outdone by our genuinely welcoming hospitality.

Volvo wants to use the South Carolina site to produce the latest-generation Volvo models for sale in the United States and for export.  The first vehicles are expected to roll off the assembly line in 2018.  Charleston will be the only place in the world that makes the Volvo S60 sedan.  It is initially scheduled to make 65,000 cars a year with production eventually ramping up to 100,000.

Volvo is known worldwide for its safety.  Fjording believes Volvo is leading the way to a world where no one should be killed in an auto accident.  Volvo’s future autonomous vehicle could be on the line to be manufactured here in Charleston.  Fjording and Volvo will work hard to bring this potentially life-saving technology to reality, and Charleston could be the home.

She expressed Volvo’s desire to work closely with the community so that it is truly a win-win relationship.  Both with her employees and the community she likes to get people involved.  With involvement she believes employees feel better about their jobs and the community feels better about the relationship with the company.  A sense of ownership is created by all.

By 2018, many things can happen.  Volvo’s automotive site will be in production, many jobs will be created, and other suppliers and industrial sites will be developed.  Green space around the Dean Swamp and Walnut Branch watersheds will be enhanced.  The Ridgeville and Summerville communities will have a lot of new life and vibrancy.  As Fjording closed her talk at the Charleston Chamber’s economic conference, she said about Volvo 2018, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”