- Associated Press - Sunday, August 13, 2017

JENKINSVILLE, S.C. (AP) - For the better part of a decade, thousands of people showed up in this town on the shores of Lake Monticello and got to work on a project that was sure to change its fortunes.

As a pair of nuclear reactors rose behind the gates of the V.C. Summer power plant, a town of fewer than 100 residents suddenly had a few thousand. Campsites and restaurants sprang up before long to meet the new need, banking on a few more years of construction work and decades of maintenance to come.

The boom in this rural corner of Fairfield County coincided with rising hopes in Winnsboro, the county seat, which is 25 minutes east on winding backroads.

South Carolina Electric & Gas was spending billions of dollars to build two of America’s first new nuclear reactors since the 1980s, and county officials expected a property tax windfall - tens of millions of dollars every year for decades.

They imagined new fortunes for one of the state’s smallest counties, a place with a shrinking population and a high poverty rate. It’s long been wedged between the orbits of Charlotte and Columbia, and it’s struggled to find a pull of its own.

They drew up ambitious plans to create one. They envisioned new trails and parks to attract tourists, a new industrial park to attract manufacturers, a new government complex to attract people to Winnsboro’s struggling downtown.

The county’s leaders were supposed to start choosing projects later this month, charting a new course for the region’s future.

Instead, they met Wednesday to make sense of the new reality that had abruptly crashed onto the county, where fewer than 23,000 people live some 20 miles north of Columbia.

Days earlier, on Monday afternoon, SCE&G; and its partner on the project, Santee Cooper, decided that construction delays on the project had gone on too long and costs were soaring too high.

“This is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams in Fairfield County and in the state of South Carolina,” Swain Whitfield, a Winnsboro resident who chairs the state Public Service Commission, said during a regulatory hearing. “It’s going to be devastating.”

The decision followed months of uncertainty as the utilities studied the project. In their final analysis, the power companies estimated the reactors would cost nearly double what they originally expected, and they saw the project’s financial safety net fraying.

Lead contractor Westinghouse Electric had filed for bankruptcy protection in March as the plant’s price soared, wiping out its guarantee of a fixed price for the reactors. Parent company Toshiba had settled with the utilities for almost $2.2 billion, but the Japanese technology giant’s finances were teetering on the edge.

The board of state-owned Santee Cooper moved first, voting to pull out of the project after hours of deliberation. Minutes later, SCE&G;’s parent company, SCANA Corp., said it couldn’t finish the project alone, so it abandoned the project, too.

Later that afternoon, more than 5,000 construction workers were called to a meeting, handed one-page termination letters and told the rumors swirling all morning were true: After eight years of work, the project was over.

They were told to go get their things and drop off their ID badges on the way out. They passed a phalanx of police as they drove back to their campsites and hotels, where they packed up and made plans to leave later in the week - if not that day.

And as they pulled out of town, they watched Fairfield County’s boomtown go bust.

Even in the peak of its expansion, Jenkinsville was tiny.

Instead of a well-defined downtown, it has a couple of businesses built on a two-lane highway. Its town hall is in a converted house a few miles from a modest post office. Estimates of its population vary year to year, but they hover somewhere between 40 and 70.

And it was facing the largest and most abrupt layoff to hit South Carolina in recent memory.

Some 5,100 construction workers lost their jobs before 5 p.m. Monday, SCE&G; says, mostly transient crews who move from site to site. The power company will cut 617 more employees at the end of September, state records indicate.

Taken together, federal Labor Department figures show, those layoffs account for roughly half the jobs in a county that already has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, 5.6 percent.

Down the road from the plant’s main entrance, a “Now Open” flag waved Wednesday near a sign for Steelhorse Smokehouse Barbecue. But even at lunchtime the food truck was gone. Its picnic tables sat empty on land the truck’s owner, Frank Kelly, bought last fall. After five years of good business he was getting ready to open his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, figuring he’d locked up prime real estate near the reactors.

“Of course, all of that got changed in a day,” Kelly said. “All in a day, it’s dried it up.”

The workers who once fueled his business were now hanging out near their campers in places like the Broad River Campground, where just months ago D. Melton had cleared land and installed rows of new electric hookups.

It was Wednesday and two-thirds of his tenants had already moved out. The few who were still there packed their trailers and got ready to go back home or to find a new job.

By the end of the week, most of them were heading to places far from South Carolina - Tennessee, Texas and Tonopah, Ariz.

But not all of them had a plan. Some lingered as the town cleared out.

They trickled into Gill’s 5-10, a convenience store with a lunch counter that was thriving until Monday. Gladys Herndon used to fill big take-out orders for the plant, and business was steady enough to work the grill full-time.

Already, business had dried up and her shifts were down to just three hours a day. The only customers left were the workers outside sharing job leads and speculating about the plant’s demise. Even they would be gone before long.

“Everybody got knocked off their feet, and they’re still in the air,” said Joel Albanze, a former safety manager. “You don’t even know where you’re gonna land yet.”

The only think Albanze knew for sure was that he wouldn’t land in Jenkinsville. After a year working in town, he was getting ready to break the lease on his apartment and go home to Tennessee.

“There’s nothing here for me,” he said.

The construction trade in Jenkinsville was going to go away eventually.

Maintenance work on the new reactors would have given the town a boost, but like any construction project, the initial building boom was bound to end within a few years.

But Fairfield County saw a bigger opportunity in the V.C. Summer expansion, a rising tide it could count on for decades.

SCE&G; was already its largest taxpayer - the utility cut a $28.1 million check last year - but the county was expecting an even bigger windfall to follow. If both reactors were completed, they were set to receive close to $80 million a year.

For the state’s ninth-smallest county, it was like hitting the jackpot - an opportunity to make “transformative changes,” county administrator Jason Taylor said this spring in a letter to the local council.

And the county has plenty of needs to address: Its infrastructure is aging, and it can’t handle much growth, he wrote. Its retail sector is “depressed,” and recreational options are limited. Its population is falling, spelling trouble for its future finances.

In the months before the nuclear project faltered, the county was preparing to spend its coming windfall to address the future.

The power company wouldn’t start paying taxes on the new reactors for at least a few more years, Taylor said, but it would take a few years to design and shepherd a major project. Council was about to get to work lining up its plans.

“We were just getting ready to bring that up,” said Billy Smith, Fairfield County Council chairman. “It was a chance to reinvent Fairfield County from the ground up, and that’s what we were looking at doing.”

The outline of those changes had been in the works for years.

The county had hired consultants to explore its possibilities and under a previous administration, council approved $24.7 million in bonds to pay for a handful of projects, including an industrial park and new sewer lines that would lay the groundwork for more ambitious work later.

The consultants dreamed up a vision of Fairfield County as desirable and pastoral, anchored by a vibrant county seat and crisscrossed by bike paths and hiking trails.

They suggested revamping the main stretch of Winnsboro and fixing up an abandoned school as a community center. They pitched a 1,000-acre park around an old granite quarry and at least two sets of trails spanning the county. They floated the idea of another industrial park to lure manufacturers.

Those were the sorts of plans the county imagined when it thought it had a “rich, billionaire uncle,” and it was the only heir, said Ty Davenport, the county’s economic development director.

“Right before he died, he squandered it, and there you are,” Davenport said. “It’s like a death in the family.”

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The sting of disappointment has reached Fairfield County before.

Hopes were high when Mack Trucks decided to build a factory here in 1987, for instance, and they were dashed when the company left abruptly 25 years later after its tax incentives ran out.

The county has been considered for major factories, and it’s been passed over as companies like Continental Tires and Giti Tire have set up in nearby counties.

It recently bought 1,200 acres of land along Interstate 77 with the state Department of Commerce in hopes of attracting a “big fish,” Davenport said, but across the county, the capacity of its sewer system has limited the companies it can court.

“It was a diamond in the rough, and it still is a diamond in the rough,” said Terry Vickers, president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “As hard as we try - and we’re making a little headway - that stone has not been polished yet.”

Glimmers of hope had been in the news as recently as last month, said Roger Gaddy, Winnsboro’s longtime mayor.

The promise of tax money from V.C. Summer had helped advance a plan that would fulfill a campaign promise he’d made 12 years ago, and it was on the front page of the local paper: The county wanted to redevelop the Mount Zion Institute, a school that traces its roots to 1777, when wealthy Charlestonians sent their children to the Upcountry to avoid malaria.

Gaddy had vowed to tear down the building, but after a series of fits and starts, the long-abandoned school was still abandoned. Developers considered renovations and backed out. Locals stepped up to preserve it but couldn’t find the money.

And then the county said it was interested in moving its offices.

Its consultants suggested that the old building, a few blocks off the main drag, could be the key to giving new life to Winnsboro’s downtown. At its twice-monthly meeting, town council was going to take its first vote on the project.

It was a small step, but Gaddy thought it would move the town one step closer to fixing up the school and, perhaps, building up a critical mass of workers downtown. Even a week earlier, Gaddy said, he’d pitched the project’s effect as a “snowball rolling down the hill,” building momentum.

“It’s not a panacea, and it’s not the total answer, but it’s a start,” Gaddy said Tuesday, the day of the meeting. “A positive start.”

But the day before, the nuclear project was called off and suddenly the money coming to Fairfield County went up in smoke.

No one knew what would happen next, and the town decided to wait before voting on the building, at least until the county decided what to do.

And like that, its future was cast in doubt again.

___

Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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