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Updated: September 13, 2023 @ 3:33 am
Silfab Solar, an Canada-based company, will develop its “flagship” company in Fort Mill at 7149 Logistics Lane near Interstate 77. Benjamin Simon/Staff
Silfab Solar, an Canada-based company, will develop its “flagship” company in Fort Mill at 7149 Logistics Lane near Interstate 77. Benjamin Simon/Staff
FORT MILL — Wally Buchanan saved the field next to his house for his grandson.
Buchanan and his family have called Fort Mill home since 1941. Even as Fort Mill grew at one of the fastest rates in the state, even as subdivisions, warehouses and a Ross distribution center surrounded his property, Buchanan never left. He stayed on the farm — and he wanted his 19-year-old grandson to stay, too.
Now, though, he’s having second thoughts.
A few hundred yards away, a solar plant manufacturer, Silfab Solar, is moving into a nearly 800,000-square-foot warehouse. And he’s worried — worried about its chemicals, worried about the traffic, worried about a gigantic corporate company that might not care about him or his neighbors.
“I don’t want my grandson trying to raise a family on our family property — his heritage,” Buchanan said. “You’re trying to erase his heritage.”
In recent months, York County Council has debated whether to provide Silfab with a tax-break from 10.5 percent to 4 percent because of the investments the company will be making in the area and the jobs it will create.
But the debate has quickly diverted far away from taxes — or even jobs — into one over whether residents want Silfab making its home in this growing Charlotte, North Carolina, suburb.
“We’re not here to wring the company for every penny,” said Fort Mill resident Morris Rothstein. “You can’t buy your way in here. This is a really pristine community. Why would we want to put a manufacturing plant here?”
But others see the project as transformative — a company with a strong track record that will bring well-paying manufacturing jobs back to the region.
Silfab’s $150 million investment plans to supply 800 jobs, a starting pay of $19 per hour for non-salaried workers and $60,000 for salaried workers and a full slate of benefits. Over a 30-year period, the company claims it will to pay about $17 million in property taxes to Fort Mill Schools and $4.7 million to York County.
Dean Faile, York County Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, believes it could shift the tide of economic development in the county.
“This is the one thing we’ve been missing,” he said. “Over the years, we haven’t had as many high-tech jobs coming in.”
If all goes according to plan, Silfab Solar would join a wave of solar panel manufacturing companies moving to the South.
In 2022, the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, offering hundreds of billions in tax incentives to clean energy manufacturing companies with American-made materials.
Since then, a slew of solar panel companies have moved their operations to America, said Annick Anctil, an associate professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. They’ve focused specifically on the South, which houses an abundance of nuclear energy that can provide cheaper electricity to solar plants. The states also have lower costs for land and cheaper labor.
The transformation allows the United States to have more control over the manufacturing process, Annick said. Before, many solar companies used material from overseas, particularly China, including Silfab.
Today, 22 solar panel manufacturers are located in South Carolina, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In recent months, more and more companies have announced plans to set up operations across South Carolina, from Orangeburg to Sumter.
“It’s pretty much went from zero manufacturing in the U.S. to every big manufacturer in the world wants to open a factory within a year,” said Anctil, who previously worked at Clemson University.
Silfab, has joined the push to invest in the United States. After nearly 40 years in business, the Canadian-based company started with a plant in Mississauga before opening two more in Washington state in recent years.
Then, in 2023, it announced plans to build a U.S. manufacturing facility.
“Domestic production of solar cells represents a strategic opportunity to manage our own U.S. supply chain and bring cell manufacturing to the U.S.,” the company said in a statement to The Post and Courier through a spokesperson. “Currently cells are primarily manufactured in China and we are happy to start this production in the U.S.”
Silfab didn’t need any approval from Fort Mill or York County. It agreed to lease the 800,000-square-foot warehouse along I-77 located in an industrial park and zoned for light industrial. The project was good to go. The company started moving in and hiring workers.
But most in Fort Mill didn’t know about the project until the company went before county council in March with hopes of receiving a tax break. When residents heard, they showed up to the March council meeting in droves.
On an afternoon in August, Buchanan sits at a dining room table with three other Fort Mill residents. He opens a binder full of stapled pages of notes, maps of the site and news articles. Most pages are highlighted and marked with Post-it notes.
It’s been five months since Fort Mill residents learned about Silfab after the company went before council for a tax-break. They felt blindsided. They thought the warehouse would become a distribution center — not a manufacturing plant.
The four people at this dining room table represent hundreds, if not thousands, who have voiced concerns about the project. Over 400 people signed an online petition against the plant.
Many are concerned about more growth — in an area already flooded with growth.
At one point, like much of York County, Fort Mill was a manufacturing town — a mill town. It was home to Springs, founded in 1887, once the largest industrial employer in South Carolina and the largest manufacturer of bed-sheets in the world. Nearly 2,000 people worked there. One Herald article called Springs the “fabric” of Fort Mill.
But over the years, that has changed. Fort Mill has transformed from a mill town into a largely affluent suburb of Charlotte with the state’s top-ranked school district. Between 2020 and 2022, nearly 5,700 residents moved to the town, the third-highest jump in the state, raising its total population to 31,000. Nearly eight new residents arrive daily.
So many people have poured into the area, the school system had to implement an enrollment freeze. Roads are gridlocked, especially before and after work. The town has stopped approving new apartment complexes.
Opponents worry about more congestion and more traffic. They worry about the 1.2 million tons of water pumped from the facility into Rock Hill. And they worry about the environmental impact of the plant.
Two future schools will be built next to the Silfab site. Apartments, a retirement community and homes, like Buchanan’s, sit nearby.
“It’s a big concern — why an industrial company is coming with chemicals into a residential area?” said Alison Dilworth, who lives about than 2.5 miles from the site.
They rattle off examples from other manufacturing plants that have impacted the surrounding community. They talk about the New-Indy paper mill, for example, in eastern York County, where residents have complained about its foul smell for years.
Antcil, who studies the solar panel manufacturing process, has found environmental concerns with some solar manufacturing facilities, such as the use of scare resources and release of hazardous chemicals into the air.
But she finds few dangers with the Silfab plant. The emissions that will come from the building, such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride, are common in most manufacturing industries, she said. The company won’t release heavy metals, greenhouse gases and they will scrub off other hazardous chemicals, such as silane. Silfab has said it will pretreat its water before sending to the wastewater treatment plant in Rock Hill.
The biggest concern Antcil finds in the solar manufacturing process is lead. And the company’s solar panels don’t use lead, she said. Silfab won’t grow silicon either — part of the manufacturing process that uses more concerning toxic chemicals, Antcil said. She called Silfab’s environmental impact “very low” compared to fossil fuel production, for example.
Antcil said she would feel comfortable living next to the Silfab plant.
“I’m way more concerned of being next to a gas station,” she said.
York County management said it supports the project through a spokesperson. The city of Rock Hill has agreed to manage the water load.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control still hasn’t approved a permit for the project. It will hold a future public comment meeting to hear residents before making a decision.
But for now, a spokesperson said the agency hasn’t found any problems.
“The emissions and chemical storages were evaluated during our technical review of the permit application,” the agency wrote in a statement, “and it was determined the proposed facility could meet all state and federal air quality regulations and standards that exist for protecting people’s health and the environment.”
When asked about its environmental plan, Silfab told The Post and Courier through a spokesperson that it planned to follow all state standards and regulations. They compare the process to “computer chip manufacturing.”
“Silfab Solar is exhausting all its efforts and resources (i.e. internal, 3rd Party experts) to provide engineering solutions and controls to protect the employees as well as the surrounding community,” the company said in a written statement.
At the Aug. 21 council meeting, Silfab Chief Operations Officer Treff MacDonald made a more emotional plea. He swiveled his head on the podium, looking at both sides of the aisle.
Silfab, he said, had no interest in hurting the environment or surrounding community members.
“At the end of the day, we need (our employees) home safe,” MacDonald told the crowd at the Aug. 21 council meeting. “We need them to grow and be educated. We need them to contribute in the operation. And you cannot do that unless you buy into the same philosophy with those people.”
Despite assurances from Silfab, council members have continued to waver on whether to provide a tax break for the company. When they met on Aug. 21, the council split four to three in favor. They will hold a final vote at future council meeting.
Some argued the economic impact outweighed the risks. Others said they didn’t feel comfortable with a manufacturing plant near a residential community.
The two leading dissenters have come from council members who represent Fort Mill, Debi Cloninger and Tom Audette.
Audette is concerned about air and water quality. He said he could not approve the tax break without the OK from DHEC, adding this is a new venture for the county.
In a statement to The Post and Courier, Cloninger said she does not believe Silfab is a “bad company.” But after speaking with residents, the facility doesn’t fit the community, she said.
“We don’t know what will be the impact of the nature of this business,” she said at the Aug. 21 meeting. “I truly cannot look at the taxpayer of this county knowing that I had approved something that I don’t know.”
But others on council say the conversation has veered off-course. They are not considering a rezoning. They are not considering whether Silfab can move into Fort Mill. That has already happened.
Rather, William “Bump” Roddey said, the council is tasked with considering whether they should approve a tax break. And for council members in favor, the company’s economic impact offers more value than its taxes.
“It’s not York County Council’s job to make sure that there are things in place — air quality, water quality, sustainability,” Roddey said at the council meeting. “That’s not what we’re here to decide. …We rely on DHEC (and) the EPA to do their jobs.”
Those in favor said they haven’t found any issues with Silfab. Councilmember Watts Huckabee even asked an ex-DEA agent to call multiple municipalities where Silfab is located. The person didn’t find any accidents or negative environmental impacts, he said.
Without any problems, he argued there’s no reason to deny the company a tax credit.
“That’s the kind of company we want to bring into York County,” Huckabee said. “We don’t want that one to go to Chester County to Gaston County to Mecklenburg County. We want them here in York County.”
After the Inflation Reduction Act, other manufacturing companies are watching. And Faile of the Chamber worries about the precedent of denying Silfab a tax break, especially when he says he hasn’t found any red flags.
“We can’t afford to make bad decisions and turn away a company,” Faile said, “particularly a company looking to locate in a building that’s been in place in an industrial park for 28 years.”
Despite pushback from the community, the company has listed jobs online and set up office space in the building. When asked about Silfab’s plans moving forward if it doesn’t receive a tax break, representatives responded in a statement.
“Following a competitive economic development project recruitment process with York County Economic Development, in good faith, we have taken preliminary steps to move forward with our project,” it said. “We will continue to work with all necessary parties to ensure the best outcome for the community.”
But for Fort Mill resident Wally Buchanan, nothing has changed his mind. Not the jobs. Not a potential DHEC approval. Not an open house with the company. He just doesn’t want a manufacturing plant next to his land.
This story has been updated to clarify the company’s response if it does not receive a tax break from York County.
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