Natural gas limitation could end industrial deal that would bring hundreds of jobs to Horry County

The lack of widespread natural gas availability in Horry County may put an end to a project that could mean a $100 million investment and several hundred high-paying jobs.

Brad Lofton, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., said it is working with SCE&G to try to put a gas line to the company’s preferred site within its timeline.

Lofton would not identify either the company or the site it is considering, but said it could decide within days if it will build a facility in Horry County.

Lofton said the natural gas wellhead in Horry County is along U.S. 378, from which the extension would be built. Natural gas service is currently available in the Atlantic Center and at the International Technology and Aerospace Park, but not at three other identified industrial locations, including the Cool Springs and Loris business parks.

SCE&G believes it can extend the service to the site within four months to six months, Lofton said, a time that could mesh well within the time it would take the company to build a manufacturing plant.

SCE&G could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Lofton said the MBREDC is now talking with other companies that are interested in natural gas service.

Several years ago, he said, the availability of natural gas was not as big an issue. But with the discovery of vast natural gas reserves in the United States and the related drop in prices, more and more large manufacturers see it as the cost-effective way of doing business.

“We used to get away with locating companies without natural gas,” Lofton said, “but now it’s critical.”

Fred Richardson, MBREDC board chairman, said that natural gas may be only one of the reasons the company could reject an Horry County location, but he too said that it’s difficult nowadays to get large new manufacturers without it.

Richardson said that EDC’s product development committee is looking into ways natural gas could be extended to prime industrial locations, such as the land northwest of the intersection of S.C. 31 and S.C. 22.

He said he’s spoken with the local SCE&G representative but has not got any cost estimate on building natural gas lines.

Who would pay to extend lines to undeveloped industrial sites is another unanswered question, Richardson said.

“I think if it’s profitable for them, they will,” he said.

Unfortunately though, economic development is by nature a speculative operation, he said.

Higher-paying jobs tend to be in heavy manufacturing that require skilled workers.

Lofton said he believes the company now in the spotlight would pay its line workers an average of $22 a hour, about $8 more than the county’s average hourly wage.

Natural gas service may be a priority for large manufacturers, but Richardson said it’s not necessarily a quick process to extend lines. Among other things, he said they will need to be examined and permitted.

But he believes it would be worth spending public money to get the lines to potential industrial locations.

“My inclination is it would be a good return on investment,” he said.