RANSON – The “Toxic Rockwool” campaign by citizens fighting the Danish insulation manufacturer set to open here in 2020 has cost Jefferson County promising business prospects, according to the head of the county’s economic development authority.
Nic Diehl, who was appointed executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority in 2017, said last week that four companies have pulled out of negotiations with area officials.
“Nobody wants to come to a county where this sort of hysteria is rampant,” Diehl said Friday. “Every single prospect has all said thanks, but no thanks.”
Rockwool Group is building the facility on the former site of Jefferson Orchards, land that Ranson annexed back in 2004.
Though news that Rockwool was building a factory in Ranson made front page news in the Spirit 10 months ago, Jefferson County residents did not begin to fight the proposal until after a groundbreaking ceremony in June.
The Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool group was created in late July and its leaders say it has more than 10,000 members. In August when Rockwool held a multi-day open house at the community center at Sam Michaels Park hoping to address citizens’ worries about the factory, CCAR members boycotted the event and held a protest outside the center instead.
“It’s been because of the community’s behavior,” Diehl said of the pullout of multiple business prospects. “I’ve lost all the work that I’ve done for the last nine months.”
Diehl said the companies that had been considering Jefferson County were just what opponents of the Rockwool plant say they want here— technology, light industry, green companies.
He said the county began the recruitment efforts soon after Rockwell announced it had selected Ranson as the site of a sister plant to the Byhalia, Miss., facility that opened in 2014.
“We had a planning session and we all said here’s what we need to focus on — light industry, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, small businesses, tourism. My focus had been on what everybody is saying I should focus on.”
While it was Diehl’s predecessor John Reisenweber who led negotiations to bring Rockwool to Jefferson County, Diehl defended the work. He said Jefferson County needs a more diverse economy with jobs that provide good wages for its residents.
“Half of the work force leaves Jefferson County to do exactly the kinds of jobs that Rockwool will be providing,” he said. “We need to stand on our own two feet and stop relying on people who sleep in Jefferson County but go outside of Jefferson County to work.
“That’s where our focus should be.”
More manufacturing jobs, which offer better wages than service-sector work, would allow more people in Jefferson County to earn a living wage here, Diehl said.
“I think in our county 80 percent of the jobs are service jobs and only 20 percent are manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We have a whole lot of jobs in Jefferson County that are hospitality jobs, which are good to have, but the people who work those jobs are coming in to Jefferson County and they’re going back home to Berkeley County and Morgan County because it’s too expensive for them to live in Jefferson County.
“We need to have the jobs that pay a living wage here. We have to have a diverse economy, to have a vibrant economy. Rockwool is the kind of company we need in Jefferson County. We need to do something different than we have been doing. It is a springboard for the kinds of jobs we need in Jefferson County.”
Of “Project Shuttle”
Diehl says most people aren’t familiar with the process involved in bringing a businesses into a new area.
“When a site consultant goes looking for a new location they draw a big circle on a map and say, we’re looking for a site in this location, and then they go looking for properties that meet their criteria. They’re looking to eliminate options at that time and if they see a property, the state economic development people would ask the county development authority to put the property on their website and then the development office begins to go through files in a given area.
Diehl said site consultants are looking for specific information about the site and the region, its roads, traffic, types of soil.
“They’re going through to start eliminating properties,” he said, adding names for the projects names follow the selection of some sites. ‘Project Shuttle’ was literally pulled out of the air. You have to call it something and you’re not going to use the company’s name.”
Diehl said as negotiations begin it becomes easier for state development office officials to discover what company is involved, information the company most often does not want announced. That’s why companies require non-disclosure agreements.
“Everybody signs NDAs,” Diehl said, noting the agreement also allows the jurisdiction to determine more information about the company’s needs such as the number of workers and the anticipated revenue. “We have to be able to begin to figure out what we get out of the deal. It’s standard practice. Otherwise the client goes away.”
Diehl said the development office began doing its homework on Rockwool once that NDA was signed.
“We learned it is well thought of internationally, and among the greenest in the world, that is is super-concerned about environmental issues, and workers get regular raises, really good benefits and the company promotes from within,” he said. “We were very comfortable with this company based on what we read.”
In his interview with the Spirit, Diehl also pushed back at critics who accuse the development authority and the state economic development office of giving away the store.
“Everything is laid out in state Code. ‘If you give this, then you get this,’” he said. “I can’t discriminate who I give tax incentives to. That’s in West Virginia State Code. It is what it is.”
He also said the state and county did everything it is required to do to alert the public about Rockwool.
“We got zero public input,” he said. “We had 40 open meetings before July 2018. It is crazy how many meetings there were. Nobody came.”