December 21, 2006

Googling the Lowcountry

Kyle Stock & John McDermott  /  Post and Courier

Berkeley could gain hundreds of high-tech jobs from $750M development near Goose Creek

Google said Wednesday it is considering an expansion into Berkeley County.The Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet company would not elaborate on its plans, but spokesman Barry Schnitt confirmed Google is looking at the Goose Creek area.

'We are expanding our technology infrastructure to support the strong and growing demand for our services,' he said. 'As a result, we are evaluating a number of sites, including Goose Creek. We hope to have additional details to announce in the coming months.'

Last week, a newly formed entity named Maguro Enterprises paid nearly $17 million for about 520 acres in Mount Holly Commerce Park off U.S. Highway 52, between Goose Creek and Moncks Corner, Berkeley County property records show. Some of the documents in that deal were notarized in Santa Clara County, Calif., an area that includes the Silicon Valley headquarters of many high-tech companies, including Google Inc. Schnitt declined to comment on the specific location or the acquisition by Maguro Enterprises.

The buzz about Google coincides with plans for a major high-tech investment on the same site Maguro Enterprises has acquired, a deal that has been shrouded in secrecy. Berkeley County in October approved tax incentives for the development, which had been dubbed 'Project X' and 'Project Y.'

More recently, the code names were switched out for a company moniker, Pyrite LLC. Pyrite plans to make a $750 million investment and employ at least 400 workers earning an average of $90,000 a year, said Berkeley County Supervisor Jim Rozier. Rozier declined Wednesday to divulge Pyrite's identity or comment on Google. He would say only that the company behind Pyrite is 'a very high-tech firm' that has purchased about 500 acres in Mount Holly Commerce Park.

'Strawberry will be the tech center of South Carolina,' Rozier said, referring to the name of the nearby community. 'It will really set this area up for the future. ... It's wonderful.'

While the property is just outside city limits, Goose Creek Administrator Dennis Harmon said he was briefed by the county several months ago that the Pyrite deal could lead to a $1 billion investment in Mount Holly Commerce Park and could create up to 800 jobs. Speculation about Pyrite's identity has intensified recently, as Harmon noted. 'The rumor mill says it's Google,' Harmon said Wednesday. 'That's all I know is rumor.'

Other officials contacted Wednesday said nearly everyone involved in the project is prohibited from discussing it under an unusually strict confidentiality agreement. Aluminum giant Alcoa, which had sold the Mount Holly Commerce Park property to Maguro Enterprises, declined to comment on the sale Wednesday. Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that generates power for the area, said that it is 'legally obligated' to not discuss what is planned for the site. Berkeley County Electric Cooperative, which would transmit electricity to the property, also declined to comment.

Maguro Enterprises and the company representative who signed the real estate deed, Jason Wheeler, could not be reached. Rozier would say only that the Mount Holly prospect he worked with was seeking a site that was prepermitted for construction, as the former Alcoa property is. It also had two other requirements - 'to be near a lot of electricity and a lot of water.' The site is already being cleared, he said.

As Google has grown in recent years, it has opened a number of data centers where banks of water-cooled computers digest search-engine requests. At the end of 2005, the tech giant had almost 5,700 employees scattered at support offices worldwide, including buildings in Atlanta; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Washington, D.C. Early this year, Google was looking at Colleton County for a $1.2 billion data center, but soil compaction and some undisclosed issues killed the deal, according to reports. Officials working on the project said that it would have housed an enormous computer network for hundreds of workers to process the company's search-engine requests.

Whats being discussed:

LOCATION: Maguro Enterprises bought essentially all land left in the 1,000-acre Mount Holly Commerce Park, which was started in 1996 as a joint venture of Alumax, Berkeley County and state-owned utility Santee Cooper.
JOBS: This technology prospect plans to create at least 400 high-paying jobs, but an official briefed on the project was told the figure could potentially climb to 800 jobs.
CAPITAL INVESTMENT: At $750 million, this development would cost $250 million more than Nucor Corp. spent on its Berkeley County steel mill a decade ago.