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Top Under-the-Radar Places for Manufacturing Plant Development

The mention of American manufacturing plant locations is typically associated with the places like the Rust Belt (llinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). But these traditional hubs are starting to grapple with aging infrastructure, increasing costs, and supply chain issues. In 2023, 71% of US manufacturers cited the rising costs of raw materials as their top supply chain threat. 

Even Houston, Texas – home to over 3,000 manufacturing plants – is struggling, with an 8.6% decline in manufacturing workforce in recent years. 

In this uncertain business landscape, manufacturers are turning to under-the-radar locations for affordability, skilled labor, and pro-business policies. These emerging hubs are seeing manufacturing employment grow at a rate nearly double the national average of 5.2%. 

This spike isn’t just a passing trend. It’s sustained by reshoring initiatives, supply chain disruptions in traditional hubs, and a growing demand for localized production.

As a result, investment in US manufacturing facilities is at its highest since the 1950s. This has contributed nearly 0.4% to current economic growth – the biggest share since 1981. 

Plus, factory construction spending has doubled in the past year, with more than 100 multi-million and multi-billion-dollar manufacturing projects announced throughout the US.

But where are these hidden gems? States like Arizona, Tennessee, and South Carolina are experiencing a manufacturing renaissance, attracting major players like Intel, Nissan, and Boeing. Meanwhile, smaller cities and towns are specializing in niches like aerospace, medical devices, and renewable energy manufacturing.

In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth review of the best under-the-radar locations for manufacturing plant development in the US. 

Criteria for Selecting a Manufacturing Plant Location

Cost of Land and Construction

Nationally, the average price for large industrial tracts has increased to more than $100,000 per acre, up from about $50,000 a year ago. Meanwhile, industrial plots near urban areas have increased to more than $250,000 per acre. 

Other than that, the 5,784 industrial properties for sale in the United States have an average listing price of $1,190,076 and a price per acre of $70,537. Of course, these costs vary by location. 

For instance, a manufacturing hub like California – home to hundreds of manufacturing plants – has an average price per acre for land of $158,815. Meanwhile, an under-the-radar location like South Carolina can offer industrial land for $86,912 per acre. 

In fact, the average industrial land prices in emerging markets can be up to 50% less than in major metropolitan areas.

Access to Labor

The manufacturing sector has one of the lowest unemployment rates across all job sectors at 2.4%

However, labor market tightness in the US has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 recession. Most industries saw tightness increases, but they varied greatly. Durables manufacturing saw a major spike in labor market tightness at 197%, while the food manufacturing industry had the starkest increase.

That’s exactly why manufacturers and production companies have to take a closer look at the local labor market before choosing a location for their new plant. It’s clear that the labor market in the traditional manufacturing hubs has become oversaturated. 

Meanwhile, under-the-radar locations have 1–2% lower unemployment rates than the national average. For instance, production employment rates in Cleveland, Tennessee, are on the rise, and their hourly mean wage is only $16.88. 

Logistical Advantages

Logistical advantages are another crucial factor in choosing the right location. Under-the-radar locations may offer strategic proximity to key markets, ports, or transportation corridors. With the help of these advantages, companies located in emerging logistics hubs can reduce transportation costs by up to 15%.

Tennessee’s strategic location and transportation connectivity are the perfect example of this advantage. It’s strategically located at the intersection of three major interstates – I-75, I-59, and I-24 – for maximum north/south and east/west connectivity. With such a location, manufacturers can reach one-third of the US consumer market within a one-day drive. 

Local Industry Presence

Manufacturers typically look for locations with a strong local industry presence. These locations allow for easier supply chain integration and access to skilled workers – 70% of manufacturers consider it a top concern. 

A facility in such a location would place you within a cluster of similar industries, which can lead to 15% higher productivity growth compared to those without. 

Of course, under-the-radar locations don’t have a robust local industry presence yet. It may seem like a downside, but these locations often welcome new companies with open arms. This could be your chance to become a dominant player in the local market, thanks to the lack of competition.

Government Incentives

Lastly, government incentives also entice manufacturers to pick certain locations for their facilities. For instance, the CHIPS and Science Act has recently boosted semiconductor manufacturing throughout the US. Another example is the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Incentives such as tax credits and lowered costs. 

You may think these incentives are only offered by manufacturing hubs in the US, such as California and Texas. However, even Washington, with only 800 production workers employed every year, offers incredible benefits for manufacturers. That includes B&O tax credits of up to $4,000 per new manufacturing job and sales and use tax exemptions on manufacturing equipment. 

Featured Locations

Greenville, South Carolina

The GDP of Greenville, South Carolina, has grown by an average of 3.5% annually over the past five years, exceeding the national average. As of 2022, the GDP is $56 billion. Greenville’s main industries include automotive, aerospace, and advanced materials production.

The region has a highly skilled technical and engineering workforce thanks to Greenville Technical College's manufacturing-related programs. Manufacturing jobs make up 11% of Greenville’s workforce. 

Average manufacturing wages in Greenville are also pretty competitive, around 10% lower than the national average. A production worker in the region makes $20.20 per hour on an average, as of May 2022.

Greenville, South Carolina’s infrastructure is also ideal for manufacturing facilities. It’s strategically located along major interstate highways and is served by the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. The Inland Port Greer also offers rail connections to major ports.

Greenville's central location within the Southeast US provides easy access to major markets and a cluster of automotive and aerospace suppliers.

The area also has reliable and affordable electricity and water supplies. Duke Energy, the main power provider, offers competitive rates for industrial customers. On average, the minimum water bill for 2,000 gallons is $19.24, while the electricity rates are 9.84¢/kWh – 16.4% lower than the national average. 

In terms of incentives, South Carolina offers job tax credits, property tax exemptions, and training grants. The state also has a business-friendly regulatory environment.

BMW's largest plant worldwide, BMW Manufacturing Co., is located in Greenville, producing over 400,000 vehicles annually.

Michelin also has a strong presence in the Greenville region, with multiple manufacturing facilities and research centers in the city. 

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tennessee, has seen a manufacturing revitalization in recent years, specializing in advanced manufacturing and logistics. The city's GDP has grown by an average of 4% annually over the past five years. As of 2022, it stands at $34 billion.

Chattanooga has a growing pool of skilled workers, particularly in engineering, technology, and logistics. The city's emphasis on STEM education is attracting young talent to expand the workforce for future manufacturing facilities.

Manufacturing wages in Chattanooga are roughly on par with the national average at around $26/hour.

Other than that, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offers engineering and technology programs, while Chattanooga State Community College provides training in advanced manufacturing skills.

The infrastructure of this city is built perfectly for ease of manufacturing. Chattanooga is well-connected by interstate highways and railways. Plus, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport offers domestic flights, and the city is a major inland port on the Tennessee River.

Chattanooga’s utility rates are pretty standard, but EPB, the municipal utility, is set to increase electric rates in October 2024 – about $5/month added to the average bill. The average residential electricity rate in the city is 10.13¢/kWh, which is 14.73% lower than the national average. 

Other than that, Chattanooga offers a central location with access to major markets in the Southeast and Midwest. The city is also a hub for logistics and distribution.

Tennessee’s incentives for manufacturers include job tax credits, property tax abatements, and workforce training grants. The state also does not have an income tax rate.

Volkswagen's only US assembly plant is located in Chattanooga, producing the Passat and Atlas models. Plus, an Australian company, NOVONIX, recently announced a new facility in Chattanooga to produce high-performance materials for lithium-ion batteries.

Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville, Alabama, has consistently outperformed the national average in terms of economic growth, mainly thanks to its robust technology sectors. As of 2022, the city’s GDP is $25 billion. Its main industries include aerospace, defense, information technology, and biotechnology. 

The city has a highly educated workforce, with a concentration of engineers, scientists, and technicians. Since 2014, Huntsville has employed 14,000 manufacturing workers. Plus, Alabama is the top state for manufacturing, with more than 270,000 manufacturing workers representing over 13% of the state's workforce. 

In Alabama, manufacturers tend to locate their facilities in Birmingham, but Huntsville offers the same incentives with fewer competitors. 

However, due to the specialized nature of the industries, average wages for manufacturing jobs in Huntsville are slightly higher than the national average. You can expect an hourly manufacturing wage of around $26.88.

In terms of education, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) offers strong programs in engineering and science. Meanwhile, the Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDTj program provides customized workforce training for manufacturers.

The city is home to the Huntsville International Airport and Interstate 565, which leads to Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta. Plus, Huntsville's location in the Southeast provides easy access to major markets and a network of suppliers in the aerospace and defense industries.

The utility rates are fairly competitive – $148/month for electricity, $112/month for gas, and $24/month for water.

As the top state for manufacturing, Alabama offers a variety of incentives for manufacturers. That includes tax credits, property tax abatements, and workforce training assistance such as AIDT. The state also has a much simpler permitting process than others.

The aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin has a major presence in Huntsville, employing thousands of workers in research, development, and manufacturing.

Another leading rocket propulsion company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, has a manufacturing facility in Huntsville, producing engines for NASA's Space Launch System.

Tucson, Arizona

Thanks to its close proximity to Mexico, Tucson, Arizona, has seen steady economic growth in recent years, with a current GDP of $55 billion.

The University of Arizona produces a steady stream of engineering and manufacturing workers. Pima Community College also offers technical training programs tailored to the needs of local manufacturers.

Manufacturing wages in Tucson are slightly below the national average at $22/hour. 

The city is home to Tucson International Airport, which offers domestic and international flight benefits for manufacturers. Plus, Interstate 10 connects the city to major markets in the Southwest. Tucson's location near the US–Mexico border also allows for easier trade and access to a large pool of suppliers.

The only flaw is the incredibly high utility rates. Most manufacturers in the city get their utilities from Tucson Electric Power (TEP) at 19¢/kWh – 23% higher than the state average. 

Arizona incentives for manufacturers are pretty generous, ranging from tax credits, job training grants, and research and development tax credits. The state also does not have an income tax rate. The Arizona Advanced Technology Network (AATN) supports workforce development in advanced manufacturing sectors.

Currently, Raytheon Missiles & Defense has a large manufacturing facility in Tucson, where they produce missiles and other defense systems. The city also houses a manufacturing plant by Leonardo Electronics US Inc., producing high-power laser systems.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio, has a GDP of $158 billion, with robust economic growth fueled by its manufacturing and technology sectors and central location.

The region is home to a large and diverse workforce with strengths in manufacturing, engineering, and technology. Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College provide a steady pipeline of skilled manufacturing workers – 73,100 as of April 2024. 

Manufacturing wages in Columbus are significantly lower than the national average at $14–$19/hour.

Other than that, Columbus is a major transportation hub, served by I-70 at the I-71, major railways, and the John Glenn Columbus International Airport. Manufacturers will also have easy access to major markets in the Midwest and Northeast.

American Electric Power (AEP) provides reliable and affordable electricity in Columbus at 6.87¢/KWh – one of the lowest in the country. The city also has access to abundant water resources, costing around $3.03 for the first 1,000 gallons. 

Ohio offers various tax credits, job creation grants, and property tax abatements for manufacturers. The state also strongly focuses on workforce development initiatives. For instance, the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) provides training and consulting services to manufacturers across the state.

Currently, Honda has a major manufacturing complex in Marysville, near Columbus. The city also houses an Amgen manufacturing facility in West Jefferson, near Columbus, producing pharmaceuticals.

Comparative Analysis

Location

GDP

Hourly Wages (Manufacturing)

Utility Rates

Manufacturing Education

/Training

Manufacturing Workforce

Incentives

Cost of Industrial Land

Greenville, SC

$56b

$20

9.84¢/

kWh

Greenville Technical College

61.6K

-Set-aside program

-Governor's closing fund

-$180m in tax credits 

$256K/

acre

Chattanooga, TN

$34b

$26

10.13¢/kWh

University of Tennessee

40.3K

-Industrial Machinery Tax Credit
-FastTrack Job Training Assistance Program

-Job Tax Credit

$186K/

acre

Huntsville, AL

$25b

$26

$148/

month

University of Alabama, AIDT

35.6K

-Raw Materials Exemption
-Biofuel Research and Development Funding
-Alabama Jobs Act

$729K/

acre

Tucson, AZ

$55b

$22

19¢/

kWh

University of Arizona, Pima Community College

28.7K

-Arizona Competes Fund
-Qualified Facility Tax Credit
-Development Income Tax Credit

$555K/

acre

Columbus, OH

$158b

$14–$19

6.87¢/

kWh

Ohio State University, Columbus State Community College 

73.1K

-Ohio Job Creation Tax Credit
-166 Direct Loan
-Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership

$542K/

acre

Challenges and Risks

Economic Instability

Under-the-radar locations can be more susceptible to economic fluctuations, currency volatility, and inflation. On average, they experienced an annual inflation rate of 4.6% over the past decade, compared to 2.1% in developed economies. The right course of action is to conduct a thorough economic analysis and assess currency risk with the help of Scout.

Political and Regulatory Risks

Some under-the-radar locations may have less stable political environments or constantly evolving regulatory frameworks. This can cause economic uncertainty and potential supply chain disruptions. 

For instance, the average time to start a business in low-income economies is 50 days, compared to 9 days in high-income economies. Before you invest in such a location, make sure to consult local legal counsel when navigating the regulatory landscape.

Infrastructure Limitations

Under-the-radar locations tend to have less developed infrastructure compared to established manufacturing hubs. You may face limitations in transportation networks, utilities, and communication systems. 

Use Scout to assess the infrastructure capacity of your chosen location carefully. Factor in potential delays and additional costs for infrastructure development. To prepare for emergencies, explore alternative solutions like on-site power generation or private logistics networks.

Talent Acquisition and Retention

The under-the-radar locations on our list have a large labor pool, but attracting and retaining skilled talent can still be a challenge, specifically in specialized fields. Such skills shortages affect 45% of employers globally.

You can avoid becoming part of that percentage by investing in workforce training programs and offering more enticing compensation and benefits packages than your competition. 

Supply Chain Risks

Under-the-radar locations also tend to have less developed supplier networks. In the early stages of your plant development, you may face potential disruptions in the supply of raw materials, components, or services. 

If you conduct thorough supplier due diligence and diversify your supplier base, your manufacturing business can make it out of that phase unscathed.

Steps to Establishing a New Manufacturing Plant

The most research-intensive aspect of establishing a new manufacturing plant is finding a location that serves you. Once you’ve narrowed it down, here are the steps you can take to get started. 

  1. First, define your business goals, target markets, and production capacity requirements. Is there enough market demand to offset the supply of your new facility? What does the competition look like? Most importantly, how financially viable is the new facility? 
  2. Narrow down your location choices based on the cost of land and construction, labor availability, infrastructure, incentives, and proximity to suppliers. Scout’s city profiles are a great way to find out the details of the locations. 
  3. Create a comprehensive financial plan outlining what you’ll spend on land acquisition, construction, equipment, and operational expenses. 
  4. Obtain the necessary permits and approvals from local, state, and federal authorities. The average time to obtain all permits for a manufacturing facility can range from 6 to 24 months.
  5. Hire local architects and engineers to design the facility layout for optimal workflow, safety compliance, and energy efficiency. LEED-certified manufacturing facilities can save up to 20% on energy costs. Plus, make sure the construction company’s quote aligns with your timelines and budgets. 
  6. Procure the necessary machinery, equipment, and technology for your production processes. Make sure everything gets properly installed, tested, and calibrated. Manufacturing companies with well-maintained equipment experience a 20% reduction in unplanned downtime.
  7. Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all aspects of the manufacturing process – quality control, safety protocols, and maintenance schedules. Hire and train a skilled workforce about the SOPs and equipment usage. 
  8. Begin production and gradually ramp up to full capacity while monitoring quality KPIs

Future Outlook

The future of manufacturing location selection looks bright. 

For instance, the rise of automation and robotics means minimal reliance on low-cost labor. This can make manufacturing more feasible in locations with higher wages but strong technological infrastructure. A study by the Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, robots will perform 25% of all manufacturing tasks globally.

Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how vulnerable global supply can be. Many companies were forced to reconsider their offshoring strategies. Currently, 83% of North American manufacturers are actively pursuing or considering reshoring.

Under-the-radar locations in the US stand to benefit from this trend since they offer shorter lead times, lower transportation costs, and more control over production.

There’s also been a recent spike in environmental concerns – 70% of consumers are willing to pay more for companies committed to sustainability. Manufacturers are now adopting sustainable practices to reduce their carbon footprint. That means under-the-radar locations with access to renewable energy sources and strong environmental regulations are becoming more enticing.

Conclusion

America’s traditional industrial markets are becoming oversaturated – new manufacturers that want any chance at being the best in their local market must explore under-the-radar locations. 

While they may not be the first choice of many manufacturing companies, these locations offer a variety of untapped benefits and incentives. They’ve even seen manufacturing job growth outpace the national average by as much as 15% in recent years.

Beyond economic advantages, these under-appreciated locations also offer the opportunity to build stronger community ties and create a more sustainable manufacturing footprint. 

Before you take the plunge, we encourage you to dive deeper into the suitability of these locations on Scout Cities.