2 Beaufort-based startups shutter local operations

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMay 15, 2014 

Less than a year after Beaufort officials touted the relocation and expansion of two manufacturing businesses, neither is still operating locally.

The recent departure of EcoDual, a startup that manufactures natural-gas conversion systems for heavy-duty diesel trucks, came as no surprise -- the company began hinting it might leave almost as soon as its arrival was announced, county officials have said.

"The issue is we're competing against Michigan, or Chicago or Pennsylvania, where they have lost a lot of jobs and have the infrastructure already," county manager Gary Kubic said.

EcoDual CEO Mike Donoughe lives and works in the Detroit area, and chief financial officer Anant Vashi has said the company was in talks with officials there.

Attempts this week to reach Vashi for comment were unsuccessful. It was not clear Thursday where the company is now operating.

In June 2013, Beaufort County promised to buy an $850,000 piece of equipment to snag a then-unidentified company wooed by the Lowcountry Economic Alliance. Later that month, the county announced that EcoDual was the target and that an engine-testing device called a dynamometer was the equipment the county had agreed to purchase.

The county would own the machinery and allow other companies interested in testing engines here to use it.

EcoDual made a temporary home on a portion of the former O.C. Welch Ford dealership on Pin Drop Lane and announced intentions to set up permanent shop in the Beaufort Commerce Park, which is owned by the city of Beaufort.

EcoDual also reached a tentative agreement with the S.C. Department of Commerce to receive tax incentives based on job-development benchmarks.

But just weeks after that news conference, company representatives told county officials they might locate elsewhere.

The dynamometer was never purchased, county attorney Josh Gruber said. The money has not been spent, is not earmarked and remains in the county's reserve fund, Kubic added.

DUER High Performance Composites

A second startup company recruited to the county recently closed its local operation, as well.

The husband-and-wife team of Chris and Tauri Duer started DUER High Performance Composites in a 15,000-square-foot facility in the Hardeeville Industrial Park, then moved to a warehouse at 20 Eleanore Fine Road in Beaufort last August. The company creates parts such as resin-infused carbon fiber, which is used for boats.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling helped the couple find the new location and said he spoke with Chris Duer this week.

"DUER is in a transitional stage," Keyserling said. "They set up to manufacture a particular product for a company, and the company only ordered the prototype. So he's regrouping and deciding what to do."

Attempts this week to reach Chris Duer for comment were unsuccessful.

He now works for a boat manufacturer in Ohio, Keyserling said. The company's equipment remains in Beaufort, unused.

A former DUER employee, Manuel Williams, is suing the company in Beaufort Magistrate Court for almost $1,000 in back pay, plus legal costs. The lawsuit includes an April 11 letter from Chris Duer, informing Williams he was being laid off because the company's work "has slowed drastically." In email between Tauri Duer and Williams, she told him he would be paid April 30, and thanked him for his patience.

The lawsuit was filed May 7.

'DISAPPOINTED BUT NOT ALARMED'

Keyserling and Kim Statler -- executive director of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, which helped attract both businesses to Beaufort County -- said they're disappointed but not alarmed by the departures.

Keyserling also said he still thinks the city made the right move by spending $1.8 million to buy the commerce park two years ago, although it has not gained any tenants since.

"Beaufort has gone hundreds of years without the kind of jobs we're talking about, and this isn't going to change overnight," he said.

Both said they are continuing to court prospects -- Statler said she had three and Keyserling said he showed the park to a fourth Thursday morning -- but all the discussions are preliminary.

Both Statler and Keyserling declined to name those prospects.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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