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American Futures

In upstate S.C., BMW jobs replace textile mills

Kai Ryssdal Jan 17, 2014
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Upstate South Carolina, and the cities of Greenville, Greer, and Spartanburg, traditionally rose and fell with the textile industry.

And, boy, did the region feel it when the textile business got hammered economically in the 1970s. But the area has now repositioned itself as a global manufacturing hub, with BMW setting up its only North American manufacturing center here.

The BMW plant is reminiscent, The Atlantic’s James Fallows says, of the original stop in our American Futures project. Sioux Falls, S.D., was an agri-business capital that’s had to adapt to a global economy. Also like Sioux Falls, this part of South Carolina seems to have positioned itself as regional trading/transportation center.

Visually, the region is stunning. Fallows says, “it really is beautiful to fly down the inland valleys of Virginia and North Carolina, with the mountains to your west all the way along.” The route Fallows, and his wife Deb, flew was more-or-less parallel to the “Fall Line” — the border between the mountains, which rise in quite a steep escarpment west of Greenville, and the rolling piedmont (“foot of mountain”) plateau which leads to the “low country” and the sea. The fall line is so named because that is where the water is falling out of the mountains, in rapids and waterfalls. And that is where the early mills set up their waterwheels to power their work.

The heritage from those days led, in fits-and-starts, to today’s Michelin and BMW factories, according to James Fallows:

“There’s one relatively well-known tale about this part of the country. People have heard in the past 20 years that BMW has set up its only North American plant here, outside Greenville. Michelin is here. GE is here. This is a perfect test case of a place that was built for one industrial era, this was all textiles and even 20 or 30 years ago this was the textile capital of the world. Textiles are just gone now and the way that certain part of this area have recovered — and others have struggled — is what we’re looking at.”

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