Williamson County delegation travels to South Korea as Samsung suppliers eye space here

On the top floor of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.’s new Pyeongtaek campus in South Korea, Bill Gravell — a Texas-drawl kind of politician from just north of Austin — had the biggest “pinch me” moment of a recent trip to Asia.

Framed prominently on the executive level of the largest active chipmaking plant in the world was the “Samsung Highway” road sign that Gravell and others gifted Samsung a few months ago.

“I looked around and there was nothing else on the wall. This was the centerpiece of the corporate floor,” Gravell said. “It just really stood out to me that this partnership and this relationship was a big deal.”

Gravell is county judge in Williamson County, the top elected position in the fast-growing locale at the north end of the Austin metro, rather than a judicial position. He and a handful of other officials spoke to Austin Business Journal after returning April 23 from a week-long trip to South Korea, organized by the Williamson County Economic Development Partnership, the Taylor Economic Development Corp. and Samsung — the latter of which is building a next-generation chipmaking facility in Taylor, about 40 miles northeast of downtown Austin. It’s scheduled to open next year.

Gravell said the trip was primarily to keep their word to Samsung executives about a return visit after they came to Taylor. But it was also an opportunity to sit down with more than a dozen Samsung suppliers they hope will follow the electronics giant to Central Texas. Cards were exchanged, hands were shaken — and several deals were possibly set in motion that could bring thousands more jobs here.

Others on the trip also labeled it a success. Williamson County Commissioner Russ Boles said during an April 25 commissioners court meeting that Samsung’s local investment has already surpassed $17 billion because of rising construction costs. He said seeing the company’s Pyeongtaek facility impressed upon him the vastness and lasting effect of such a facility.

“One of the things they were pretty adamant about is that while we are investing, we need to get our ecosystem” up and running, he said. “It is something that is going to be a value to the country and the region for the ongoing future.”

Dave Porter, executive director of the Williamson County Economic Development Partnership, said after the trip in a statement that it became “very apparent Williamson County is on a global center stage for investments from Korean companies.”

Charisse Bodisch, senior vice president for economic development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Opportunity Austin, said in a statement that the delegation highlighted “the region’s thriving technology and innovation ecosystem, highly skilled workforce, and favorable business climate.”

“Opportunity Austin remains committed to building strong relationships with international partners and attracting new investment to the region,” she said. “The continued collaboration with our regional communities highlights the strength and growth of our local assets and the potential for continued economic growth.”

Samsung effect intensifies

The trip showcased the “Samsung effect” — the companies expected to follow the chipmaker to Central Texas as it builds the massive facility in Taylor, on top of the thousands that will be directly employed by Samsung.

Samsung continues to chug along with construction on what will eventually be a 6-million-square-foot facility near the former intersection of County Roads 401 and 404.

Samsung’s recent annual economic impact report shows the potential of the Taylor facility. Samsung estimated that its Austin facility — originally built more than 20 years ago on the city’s north side, about a 20-minute drive from Taylor — pumped $9.3 billion into the Central Texas economy in 2022, along with 14,312 permanent jobs and $912.5 million in worker salaries.

Company representatives declined to provide an update on the Taylor facilities but lauded the recent trip as a success.

“Samsung values the partnership that we have developed with Williamson County and the city of Taylor. It was our honor to host them at our semiconductor headquarters in Hwaseong, Korea, and we hope that it provided a better understanding of our proven capabilities,” Michele Glaze, head of communications and community affairs for Samsung Austin Semiconductor, told the ABJ.

Several companies in the Samsung supply chain have already announced expansions in Williamson County, including industrial gas supplier Linde Inc. in Taylor, stainless steel piping supplier Valex Corp. and KoMiCo Technology Inc., a semiconductor equipment parts cleaning, coating and repair company. Toppan Photomasks Inc. is also considering upgrading its Round Rock facility.

Asked if Williamson County is ready for that level of development, Gravell said yes, but that it will take the larger region as well. He said businesses will also land in Bell, Williamson, Travis, Hays, Lee and Milam counties: “It’s going to take the entire region to sustain the ecosystem that’s being built.”

“I think what we’re talking about is so large,” Gravell said. “I believe between Tesla and the ecosystem that is being built there and with Samsung and their suppliers, between those projects, I believe that you will easily see a quarter of a trillion dollars of capital investment in Central Texas. When you start talking about numbers like that, you’re not just talking about a rising tide that lifts all boats, you’re talking about a tsunami.”

In an example of the closer ties being forged between Central Texas and Asia, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency — or KOTRA, essentially the country’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of Commerce — is on April 27 celebrating the grand opening of an Austin office in WeWork space at 316 W. 12th St. KOTRA officials are expected to be in attendance along with Williamson County and state officials.

With the number of companies considering Texas for expansion as a result of the Samsung plant and policy pushes like the CHIPS Act, KOTRA officials aim to provide professional consulting and marketing support for global buyers.

The Williamson County Commissioners Court on April 25 unanimously approved a mutual cooperation agreement with KOTRA, the first county in the United States to approve such an agreement. Gravell added that 25 CEOs are signed on to head to Williamson County in the next few weeks to scope out real estate.

Having relationships with these kinds of businesses and with KOTRA “really seems significant,” Gravell said, noting they could help business owners connect with international attorneys and find workforce leads.

“If you’re opening a business in a foreign country, you don’t know how to navigate those waters,” he said.

More on the way

While Gravell declined to share the names of companies the delegation met with in South Korea, he said deals with some of them could soon come to fruition. Eastern Williamson County is rife with large industrial projects that are ready for tenants, including the RCR rail hub in Taylor, the Hutto Mega TechCenter and GTX Logistics Park in Georgetown.

Gravell estimated 150 to 200 suppliers could eventually set up shop in the region and that “you’re going to see a massive influx incredibly quick.”

“You’re going to be stunned” by how many companies follow Samsung, he said.

The county judge called the trip to South Korea “overwhelming” and “amazing,” adding that they could have “easily stayed two more weeks” with the demand for meetings on their already full calendar.

But it was mostly “humbling” to see the Pyeongtaek campus — and ponder how the Taylor campus could rival or surpass it in size one day.

“It’s a massive facility, and to realize what we’re building in Taylor will eclipse that is humbling,” he said.

Speculation simmered on one potential project after a recent announcement, although it’s unclear if it could be headed to the Austin area. General Motors and South Korea’s Samsung SDI announced April 25 that they plan to invest more than $3 billion in a new electric vehicle battery cell plant in the United States, according to the Associated Press. The companies did not disclose the location, but said that the plant — expected to begin operations in 2026 — would create thousands of jobs.

Rydell said trip meetings spanned a wide variety of topics, including mixed-use and housing projects and best practices regarding land use. One, with Bando Construction, was covered in the South Korean media, garnering more global headlines for little Taylor.

Taylor could see a wave of mixed-use development with denser housing alongside retail and office space. Rydell pointed to nearly 30 housing, mixed-use and industrial projects at various development stages in the city, including a recent 80-acre mixed-use project approved by City Council called Taylor Heights, and a large parcel bought by Dallas-based homebuilder Megatel.

“There are a host of challenges that come along with all of this, but we’re excited about addressing them,” Rydell said. “I came away very enthused about what is to come for Taylor and Williamson County and Texas.”

Perhaps his “aha moment” on the trip was a tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone along with his wife, who he paid for coming along as a thank you for putting up with him during the Samsung process. When other tour-goers found out Rydell was the mayor of Taylor, Texas, several treated him like a celebrity, pulling up news articles with his picture.

“One thing that we wanted to do was to get the message out for both Taylor and Williamson County that we are actively wanting to engage with the business community and we’re open and welcoming and want to work with them,” Rydell said. “It was a great experience all the way around and it was a very productive trip.”

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