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Wayne Bowers: BMW Comes to Spartanburg

Part two of a discussion with former Greenville City Manager Wayne Bowers, who resigned February 29. (Part One is here. Full series schedule here.)

By Anthony Noel

GREENVILLE GUARDIAN: So after your time in Tallahassee, then six years as city manager in Jacksonville Beach [Fla.] and a little over a year in Huntington [W.Va.], you went to Spartanburg [S.C.], and stayed more than 10 years.

WAYNE BOWERS: That [job change] was all family.

I loved Huntington, loved West Virginia. It was a challenge. With West Virginia’s economy it was never going to be easy being the city manager there, just because of the poor economy. And I don’t think it’s changed that much; it was very difficult.

But as I said, I’m from Greenville, South Carolina. My wife [Betsy] is from Gastonia, North Carolina, and we did some talking about where we wanted to be. We said the best place would be right between Gastonia and Greenville. Well, Spartanburg’s exactly, when you go down [Route] 85, it’s almost exactly between the two.

So my mother was still alive in Greenville, and my wife’s father was still alive in Gastonia. Our kids were still small, and they could be near their grandparents. Spartanburg has a long history of long-term managers, and [when the job came open] we said, “If we don’t go now, we may never get that chance.”

“I was called to a meeting

one Friday afternoon…

and  I was sworn to secrecy:

‘You can’t tell anybody what’s going on.’”

We loved Spartanburg, it was a great town, lot of great people there, plus it’s kinda like home, you know, only 30 miles away. I’d always joke that I’d come a long way in life – 30 miles!

But Spartanburg was doing a lot of great things with economic development, and I got to work on the BMW [automobile manufacturing] plant, and that was a great experience. We got worldwide attention for that stuff.

The governor, Carroll Campbell, he made it a point that he was going to get the BMW plant. It was controversial because of all the tax breaks it took to get it done, but putting all of that aside, it was an exciting time.

[The late Governor Campbell was born in Greenville, SC and raised in that region. He has been hailed “the master architect” of the Republican Party’s rapid growth in the state, and its dominance of politics there.]

I was called to a meeting one Friday afternoon with this representative from a big engineering firm, and he said I was sworn to secrecy: “You can’t tell anybody what’s going on.” He had the head of the chamber of commerce, the governor’s chief of staff, a guy from the state economic development commission, and he said, “You can’t tell anybody about this,” but they had on this wall drawings of this plant and they said, “We’ve got a chance to bring this to our area.”

The governor had brought the BMW people to look at a site in Anderson county, over near Clemson, and that’s really what the state was pushing. It was fairly well publicized that they were pushing this piece of land over there.

The trouble is, the guy from Germany didn’t like it, didn’t like that particular site. So, he got back on the plane, and fortunately the plane was parked at our airport – it’s the airport you fly into to go to Clemson – and it’s a pretty nice airport.

So he’s flying out, and he’s flying with the guy from the state development commission, and he was flying back with him to New Jersey. So he got up in the air, and he says, “Right down there is where I’d like to put this plant.” He said, “We need to fly in – we’re going to make the engines in Germany, and we need to fly them in, and we need to be near a major airport.”

The problem was, there wasn’t that much land that was suitable. There were houses – people lived there. And the governor says, “If you want it, we’ll get it.” And they went out and bought those houses, and people’d say, “I don’t want to sell,” and they’d say, “Everybody’ll sell for a price, how much you want?” And they cut ‘em deals.

We didn’t know much about that [part of it]. It was such a secret thing, they kept – you had your little piece. The meeting I was in, they were telling you what they wanted you to know. They had another meeting with the county and they’d tell what they wanted them to know, and other people – they had local real estate agents working on buying this property. But none of us could talk to each other. So I didn’t know what the county manager was doing and we never talked about it until after it was over.

They [BMW] wanted office space in downtown Spartanburg while the plant was being built, it took them about a year and half to build the plant, so they wanted some class A office space, and we were able to put together a deal with a local guy who owned an office building to clear office space.

In Germany, [BMW] has a training center for their employees that’s built on a lake, this real pristine vicinity, and they said they want to do the same thing in South Carolina. And the city owned the watershed, the lake where we got the water from, and we didn’t allow much development around it. But we said we thought we could make an exception.

So we gave them the land on the lake to build their conference center; gave them free office space, which, we were in competition with Greenville, South Carolina. [BMW] said they could go either downtown Greenville or downtown Spartanburg because they were equidistant from the plant, and we [Spartanburg] made them the better deal.

“They generated 5,000 jobs [and]

we created 5,000 additional jobs

to support those jobs. So it’s 10,000

high-paying, good-benefit jobs

for all throughout the region.” 

All the press releases that came out in the next year said “Spartanburg.” So that plant, it is physically closer to Greenville than it is to Spartanburg, but it’s known as the Spartanburg plant, because they got their offices [in Spartanburg] for that year and a half.

They generated 5,000 jobs, high-tech, higher than the textile jobs that they were replacing, and the thing that we didn’t really realize at the beginning is that plant puts these cars together, but most of the parts are made other places. So we got Lear Seating Company that makes the seats; they broke [ground] for a plant. They probably brought in four or five hundred [jobs]. General Electric made the brakes. They brought in a plant. We had another, a headlight plant.

We created 5,000 additional jobs to support those 5,000 [BMW] jobs. So it’s 10,000 high-paying, good-benefit jobs for all throughout the region. And since then, since I left [in 1995, for the city manager’s job in Gainesville], they’ve doubled the size of the plant. They’ve got 10,000 employees at that plant. And, you know, it’s just the kind of thing you’re fortunate to be associated with.

They ship the cars out to Europe and South America, and they wanted to be three to four hours from a port, but they don’t want to store the vehicles near the port because of the salt air. These people, they know exactly what they’re doing. They know what’d fit and what wouldn’t fit. So you can take I-26 from Spartanburg right down to Charleston, and put ‘em on a ship.

The plant is so heavy that it can’t be built near the coast because of the soil. They didn’t want to have snow days, when they would lose too many production days because of snow – so they know exactly how many days of snow they’d have. It was fantastic working with them.

GG: And next, for you, was Gainesville.

WB: I did my 11 years in Spartanburg, and the reason I came there, the two grandparents, had passed away. The kids were getting pretty much grown. So that was when I made the move.

I liked Florida, I liked working in a college town, and by then people were making offers, looking for me. Florida was really expanding at the time. There were [in Gainesville] 35,000 students at the University of Florida and another 20,000 at the community college when I went there, and by the time I left, the university had over 50,000 students. Many similarities to ECU, just on a little bit bigger scale. Big teaching hospital and a big medical school, all that stuff.

GG: Over twelve hundred city employees, that’s almost double what you have here. That’s a lot of folks.

WB: That’s a lot of folks, that’s right.

My great story about that is that the city manager’s job, people who want to know what it is, what to compare it to, I compare it to the guy who cuts the grass in the cemetery: There’s a lot of people under him, but they don’t pay much attention to him. (laughter) You try to just make sure they’re all going in the right direction, that’s the best you can do.

Most city employees are pretty dedicated folks, and they really don’t get the credit they should, but if you’ve got good staff, things will work out.

Part three of the discussion with Bowers, “How I Manage,” appears Sunday, March 25.

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