‘All is not lost’: Area leaders look at life after 2005 Graniteville train wreck

January 6, 2016

Local political and economic leaders are offering a variety of descriptions in assessing the past 11 years in Graniteville, with the 2005 train wreck having radically changed local life.

Roland Smith, a former state legislator (1989-2015) whose district included much of the area surrounding Graniteville, was among those who addressed the topic this week. Smith recalled “some very difficult, very depressing times for many reasons.”

He cited such factors as injuries, deaths and the chlorine cloud itself, which inflicted heavy damage on structures within blocks of the crash site and forced hundreds of people to evacuate – some for weeks.

The wreck, which occurred in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 6, 2005, resulted in nine deaths as “a northbound Norfolk Southern railway freight train derailed after encountering an open switch and collided with a parked train on a siding track,” as engraved on a monument in Graniteville.

“Some people still have problems after the fact,” Smith said, “but as far as the real estate and the community itself, it seems to have turned the corner and we see improvements occurring.”

Several local leaders commented on receiving a boost from Bridgestone Americas in 2013, with the construction of a 1.5-million-square-foot facility for producing off-road radial tires. Sage Mill Industrial Park is the host site.

An Aiken Standard report from December 2013 noted, “This entire project represents a $1.2 billion investment. It’s the single largest capital investment in South Carolina’s history to date and, in all, is estimated to create more than 850 jobs.”

Echoing that theme, Aiken-based entrepreneur and developer Weldon Wyatt referred to it as “the largest industrial development in the state at that time.”

MTU Diesel’s investment was among the highlights mentioned by Will Williams, president/CEO of the Economic Development Partnership, an organization dedicated to encouraging growth in Aiken, Saluda and Edgefield counties. The initial investment, announced in March 2012, was for $45 million – an amount to be doubled in the ensuing months – in the former SKF building at Sage Mill Industrial Park.

Major changes since 2005, he noted, also touch heavily on schools, with Byrd Elementary having moved to a new campus and Leavelle McCampbell Middle now going through its next-to-last academic year at its current, generations-old location, with plans to move next to the new Byrd site.

Williams, commenting on the general situation, said, “All is not lost, in that … I don’t see anything but positive things happening in the Graniteville community.”

He also addressed EDP’s current efforts. “My organization has constructed a 105,000-square-foot speculative building to draw more manufacturing jobs to the area, to entice people to come look at Sage Mill Industrial Park,” he said.

Smith cited new houses being built in the vicinities of Bettis Academy Road and Trolley Line Road, “back over close to Vaucluse,” as well as some of the former Avondale Mills property having been bought and put back into action.

He and Williams both commented on such recent developments as the establishment of Recleim, a company that has its flagship facility in Graniteville. Recleim is dedicated to “environmentally-sound recycling and resource recovery for refrigerators and other large appliances, while offering efficient and convenient disposal of these items when they are no longer wanted,” as stated on its website.

Another new development of the past decade has been the local Christ Central facility, described in its web site as dedicated to “enriching the Aiken/Graniteville community by uniting volunteers to help families in need through food, clothing, prayer, education and job skills.”

Judy Floyd, director of that facility, pointed out that it has two branches. One, the Hope Center, is built on the same acreage where the wrecked train came to rest. Christ Central bought it and restored it, via $1 million and volunteer efforts, and “it’s a wonderful property, adding value to the community rather than being a building that’s in disrepair and vacant,” Floyd said.

Hope Center has such offerings as an after-school program for kids from ages 5-12, and also offers classes for people interested in work in the food industry. Efforts have also begun to establish classes for people hoping to work as certified nursing assistants, with certification of the program expected during the next several weeks.

Graniteville’s other Christ Central facility, she said, is Trinity Academy, which offers help in “preschool readiness” for 3- and 4-year-olds, to help them prepare for kindergarten. Offerings also include a vision clinic, offering low-cost help for people needing help getting eye exams and eyeglasses.

Another relatively new establishment with Christian roots is Megiddo Dream Station, bankrolled by such boosters as Sage Valley, Dumpster Depot and Meybohm Realtors, offering “a comprehensive, multidimensional program designed to create self-sustaining families.” Specific focal points range from job training and financial planning to Bible study and food assistance.

Wyatt mentioned Megiddo Dream Station among the local highlights of recent years, crediting it with “doing some great things there in the community.”

He also described himself as “very optimistic” with regard to Graniteville’s situation. Like Williams, he cited such factors as the construction of Leavelle McCampbell Middle School’s new facility to replace the one that dates back to the 1920s.

In addition, he touched on the Sage Creek development, adding, “There’ll be over 1,500 homes in that community,” as well as AllStar Tents, which now has its base of operations on Bettis Academy Road.

One potential place for major improvement, he added, is exit 11 off I-20, which provides direct access to Graniteville via Bettis Academy Road, the home of Sage Valley Golf Club, one of Wyatt’s most prominent creations.

Referring to exit 11, Wyatt said, “There’s just been no focus on that, but that would have a huge impact on the whole area. I understand they’re getting ready to widen Bettis Academy for some distance. The whole road system could be improved, especially right down there in Graniteville.”

Smith specifically credited Aiken County’s government with strong work in terms of helping Graniteville bounce back. “The County’s done a great job. The General Assembly has provided the tools for the counties to go out and recruit – along with Economic Development Partnership – and bring jobs in here,” he said.

The result, he added, has been “new jobs, good jobs – high-paying jobs.”

Highlights also have included getting a new water and sewer system, Smith noted. “They’re going to have a quality water system in the Graniteville area. That was way overdue. The system had not been maintained properly by Avondale. It just deteriorated.”

Most of the work, however, is now complete, Smith said, adding that local residents, after the train wreck, were hugely discouraged but did not give up.

Wyatt recalled the train wreck and its toxic legacy. “Graniteville Specialty Fabrics was the only thing that was left there, after they shut everything.

“Today, Graniteville Specialty Fabrics is a very profitable enterprise, and it’s running two shifts, and every employee there has received a bonus in the last five years,” Wyatt said, noting that bonuses were not given in earlier years.

“I know they’re better off,” he added.

Referring to the former Avondale Mills acreage in general, Wyatt said, “Now it’s being utilized and … there’s been a whole lot of benefit, growth and tax revenue from the County, and it’s a lot of good things, in my mind. Sage Valley is there along with it. I think it’s been a lot of good improvements all along, and I think there will be more.”

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