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01-22-04: Mercer County in running for ethanol facility


Mercer County could become home to a $250 million corn processing plant that would be tied to the state’s blossoming ethanol industry.
Investors involved with the project have narrowed their site selection search to three places, including a tract of land between Ohio 703 and Ohio 29 east of Celina. If built, the plant property would straddle the R.J. Corman railroad spur that runs between the highways. The proposed facility would not only produce ethanol — fuel derived from corn — but also a number of corn byproducts through the wet-milling process.
“It’s getting real close to them making a selection,” Mercer County Community Development Director Larry Stelzer said. “This could be huge in what it means to this whole area.”
Kent Thompson, a rural Arcanum farmer who is president of the Ohio Corn Processors Inc., told The Daily Standard this morning that investors are impressed with the Mercer County site, but said it could be two months or longer before the group decides which site to pursue. In addition to deciding on a final site, investors involved with the project also must finalize state permitting and their financing for the deal before it can move forward, Thompson said.
Ohio Corn Processors is a group of 14 farmers who initially came together a couple of years ago to look at the prospect of an investor-owned ethanol plant. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, that became law two years ago creating tax incentives for ethanol plants sparked their interest in the idea. All three of the group’s finalist sites are believed to be in Faber’s district.
“Ultimately this would be a great thing if it works out. But for me, it’s not necessarily where they build an ethanol plant, but that it will be successful,” Faber said this morning. “The important thing will be, ‘Does their business plan allow them to be viable, long-term, in good markets and bad markets?’ ”
As envisioned now, the wet-milling plant would employ 80-100 on-site with another 300 spin-off jobs estimated to follow in the years after it opens, Stelzer said. It would produce ethanol and other corn products. Ethanol can be blended with gasoline to produce a cleaner-burning, more efficient fuel.
The group of farmers is looking at 80 acres of land owned by Jonny Dicke and another farmer in eastern Jefferson Township. The nearby four-lane highway and railroad line were essential elements a corn processing plant would need, Stelzer said.
Mercer County farmer Jim VanTilburg, who is one of the Ohio Corn Processors founders, is the one who pushed for the group to consider Mercer County in its site selection process, Stelzer said.
“We had to play catch-up with the other sites initially,” Stelzer said. “But I believe we’ve not only caught up with those other sites, I think we’ve pulled ahead.”
Water and sewer infrastructure were potential hurdles, Stelzer said, but added that there are a couple of possible solutions that make the project look viable.
Thompson said his group started their process by evaluating more than 20 sites.
Only a couple of years ago, Mercer County was considered to be a longshot for an ethanol plant. Even Stelzer said in a February 2002 story in The Daily Standard that the county would “never” see an ethanol plant. Stelzer based his comments on what state agriculture and development officials were saying then. The county was not considered a prime location because it has a “corn deficit,” which means the county’s huge livestock population consumes so much corn that more corn would have to be shipped in to run an ethanol plant.
A couple of things have changed since then.
Thompson said there is an ample supply of corn within a 75-mile radius of West Central Ohio. Furthermore, the wet-milling plant is different than a dry-milling plant that produces only ethanol. The wet-milling plant gives the plant operators additional revenue streams through the various corn byproducts.
Wet-milling is a process used to extract a number of products from corn. The process involves soaking kernels of corn in warm water before draining it. The kernels are then placed through a germination process where corn oil is extracted and the other byproducts are separated.
A single bushel of corn can produce 32 pounds of corn starch, 33 pounds of corn syrup, 2.5 gallons of ethanol, 1.6 pounds of corn oil and about 15 pounds of protein meal used for cattle feed.
Thompson estimated that the proposed ethanol plant would consume about 100,000 bushels of corn per day.
After a site is picked and permits, licenses and tax credits are in place, the company plans to seek public financing, Thompson said. That means local farmers and other investors would have the opportunity to invest in the facility through the purchase of bonds.
Ohio government officials have been pursuing growth in the ethanol industry for the past few years and a number of projects are pending across the state. No final proposals have yet come before the state Ethanol Incentive Review Board.
Ohio’s efforts are aimed at improving the state’s lagging status in developing ethanol technology. The state annually ranks as one of the top consumers of ethanol and one of the top producers of corn, yet has no ethanol production facilities of its own.
One group of investors was moving toward building a plant in Putnam or Defiance counties and appeared to have a solid plan in place. Financing for that project never materialized and its current status is uncertain, Faber said.


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