Dixie-Narco to double its plant size

It was a "double or nothing" roll of the economic dice and for Barnwell County, it came up on the winning side.

After months of local news of plant closings, furloughed employees and budget cutbacks due to the ailing national economy, Barnwell County, especially Williston, has news of an industry expansion it can welcome.

Crane Corp., the Stamford, Conn.-based company that owns Dixie-Narco, is folding the operations of its St. Louis, Mo. manufacturing plant into its plant in Williston.

What this development means is 400 to 500 new jobs will be created at the Williston plant within about 14 months with an additional 500 to 600 jobs added within four to five years as the production lines in St. Louis are transferred to Williston, said Marty Martin, the director of the Barnwell County Economic Development Corp.

"This is good news and we needed it," he said. "We got the commitment letter in hand and they will be consolidating the St. Louis operations."

 The expansion will mean a $20 million investment in the Williston plant by its parent company, Crane Corporation, according to a SouthernCarolina Alliance press release on the announcement. SouthernCarolina Alliance is an economic development entity for the four-county region of Hampton, Barnwell, Bamberg and Allendale counties.

Two plants consolidating

Crane announced the consolidation plans to its St. Louis employees and to the management of Williston's Dixie-Narco plant March 6, Martin said.

The St. Louis plant employs about 500 people. The plant makes coffee and snack vending machines while the Williston plant currently creates just soft drink vending machines and employs about 500 workers, he said.

"They have a large percentage of the vending machine market. All their North American vending operations will be in Williston. That will be Crane's only vending plant in North America," Martin said.

The economic roll of the dice was whether Crane would decide to consolidate the two plants' operations in St. Louis or Williston, which means one location would close down totally.

"With consolidation, you are either a big winner or a big loser," Martin said, noting that the Hanesbrands and Allied Air closings in Barnwell County were the result of plant consolidations. "Consolidation is becoming part of the industrial lexicon."

Hanesbrands is consolidating its Barnwell operations to a plant in San Juan Opico, El Salvador and Allied Air is moving its production to its Orangeburg plant and one in Saltillo, Mexico.

Martin said if Crane had decided in favor of St. Louis, it would have been bad news for Barnwell County.

"This was a project that could have been really devastating in light of the three plant closures," he said. "It's a great opportunity to transition some of these plant workers into the Crane plant."

Williston mayor relieved

Williston Mayor Tommy Rivers had one more reason to relax March 6 as he vactioned in Disney World. Rivers received a call from Crane president Eric Fast about the company's decision regarding its Williston plant.

"We are doing cartwheels," he said. "We are excited. This is the biggest thing to happen to Williston in a while."

If the Dixie-Narco plant expands to the level anticipated, it will reach close to its previous heyday.

Between 1993 and 1998, the Williston plant employed about 1,600 people and was the second largest employer in a six-county region - the Savannah River Site was the first, Rivers said.

"We are looking forward to great things," Rivers said of the Crane decision.

Transition to Williston

Full transition of the St. Louis operations to Williston should be complete by June 2010, Martin said.

"That will take a lot of pressure off the unemployment situation," he said.

By the end of this month or no later than early April the Hanesbrand textile plant, which makes socks, will be closed and by June, the Milliken textile plant will close as well, he said.

The Hanesbrands plant in Barnwell employs 319 workers and Milliken, also in Barnwell, has about 125 employees, he said.

Also, the Allied Air plant in Blackville, which makes residential-grade heat pumps and air conditioning units, will close down all but one of its product assembly lines by August of this year, Martin said.

The Blackville plant right now has about 325 workers.

The remaining product line - for oil-burning furnaces - will keep producing, but only need about 20 to 25 workers, he said.

Many of the workers affected by these plant closings would be likely candidates to work in the manufacturing jobs at Dixie-Narco, Martin said.

Factors in the decision

Positioning Barnwell County to be the favored choice for Crane involved the help of many people, Martin said.

Barnwell County offered $500,000 as part of an incentive package to Crane. The money came from the Barnwell County economic development fund. The application was handled by the Barnwell County Economic Development Corp. (EDC). EDC in turn had to get approval from both the Barnwell County Council and the S.C. State Budget and Control Board, Martin said.

A delegation visited Crane's home office in Stamford, Conn. to plead for the Williston plant in January.

The delegation included representatives from SCANA - the energy corporation - and the S.C. Department of Commerce and Martin. Dr. Barry Russell with the state vocational technical school association as well as Eric Dell, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's office, were part of the group.

Likewise, St. Louis sent its own delegation, Martin said.

"We had the right people in the room to state our case," he said.

Dixie-Narco in 1989 relocated the manufacture of its vending machines from Reston, Va. to the former Admiral freezer factory in Willisto. In 1997, Dixie-Narco expanded its holdings by buying ECC Vending, a glass front vending operation. Dixie-Narco became a subsidiary of Crane Corp. in 2007 when that company bought the Williston operation.

Martin praised SCANA, the Barnwell County Council and the Department of Commerce for their help.

"They really stepped up to the plate to make this happen," he said. "To be honest - there won't be many 1,000-job creation announcements in this economy."