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03-18-04 Mercer County needs to build up steam for facility

By Timothy Cox

Local government officials learned Wednesday how they can enhance the chances of getting a proposed $250 million corn processing facility built in Mercer County.
   Officials from Ohio Corn Processors Inc., a start-up company launched by 14 regional farmers and businessmen, is considering Mercer County along with Darke and Preble counties as sites to pursue their plans for an ethanol plant. Several of the company’s original investors and consultants they have hired to guide their plans met Wednesday with local officials, including Mercer County Commissioners, Jefferson Township Trustees, Celina city administration members and others.
   The investment group is hoping to convince local governments to provide financial backing for power and wastewater infrastructure investments in the event of the company’s failure. An on-site wastewater facility could run $15 million while a 23-megawatt power station could cost $20 million, an engineer working on the proposal said.
   The company has tentative deals in place with other firms to build those facilities, which would then be paid back monthly by the Ohio Corn Processors. The outside investors, though, want additional guarantees that their money would be recouped if the corn processing company goes bankrupt.
   Local backing for those deals would enhance the likelihood of the plant being built here, said consultants Rick Wachter and Steve Randolph. But the lack of such agreements would not be “deal-breakers” either, they said.
   The plant would need the sewage treatment plant because its wastewater would have too many suspended solids for typical public treatment systems to handle. The power plant would be necessary to provide steam for the plant’s processes, with some of the electricity being sold back into the power grid.
   Other site requirements include 80 acres of undeveloped land, 2 million gallons of daily water capacity, 100-car railroad capability and roads able to carry 200 trucks daily.
   Local officials seemed eager to do what they can to entice the company to build the plant in Mercer County, on 80 acres along Ohio 29 east of Celina.
   “The city administration sees the positive aspects of this project ... We support going ahead with this and are prepared to do anything we can do to help,” Celina Mayor Sharon LaRue said.
   Mercer County Commissioner Jerry Laffin said local officials also could possibly set up a tax-increment finance (TIF) district to direct taxes raised through real estate improvements back into infrastructure to the site.
   “We want that plant here,” Mercer County Community Development Director Larry Stelzer said.
   As conceived now, the wet-milling facility would process about 35 million bushels of corn annually. That corn would be processed into 100 million gallons of ethanol — alcohol that can be blended with gasoline — food-grade carbon dioxide, corn gluten cattle feed and corn germ that would be sold raw to other processors.
   A wet-mill facility costs more to build but offers more revenue streams through the different byproducts, the consultants said. Traditional dry-mill facilities produce only ethanol and a feed called distiller’s grain.
   The proposed plant would employ 50-80 people on-site, create as many as 500 temporary jobs during the two-year construction phase and likely spawn related businesses in the community, the consultants said.
   Randolph, who said he has visited virtually every ethanol facility in North America, said the number of jobs created by the “flywheel” effect of a local corn processing plant could easily triple the number of jobs at the plant.
   “There are other industries that would want to locate on a lot-line approach to this facility,” Randolph said. “Two or three times is on the low side when you do all the math. We’re trying to be very conservative in what we tell people. We have every intention and desire not to over-promise.”
   Jobs at the plant would be mostly skilled labor and professionals, Wachter said.
   “We’re talking about a hell of a lot of people walking around with pocket protectors,” Wachter quipped.
   Ohio Corn Processors investors would not speculate Wednesday on when a decision will be made on where the group will pursue its plans.
   Company President Kent Thompson said all three communities remain under consideration.
   The original investors still must complete their paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to accept public investors and must go through state permitting processes. After those items are taken care of and a site is chosen, construction would take about two years, Thompson said.
   David Brate, the company’s corporate secretary, said the group ultimately envisions thousands of investors and said the investment opportunity would not be limited to farmers.
   Building the plant in any of the three West Central Ohio communities should poise the business for future success, the consultants said. As pollution standards grow more stringent and gasoline additives like MBTE are banned, the East Coast should see a huge increase in demand for ethanol, they said. The proposed plant would represent one of the largest, easternmost ethanol production facilities in the nation, and in prime geographic position to ship its products east, Wachter said.
   “We believe we can be the lowest-cost producer and have the lowest shipping costs,” Wachter said.
   Brate said company officials are confident in their business plan.
   “We have invested our personal funds and time in this project because we believe in the future of the ethanol industry,” Brate said.
   Wachter said increased ethanol production reduces reliance on foreign oil and said the jobs created won’t be shipped overseas.
   “You don’t pick these plants up and move them to Mexico. This plant will sink or swim on its own,” Wachter said.


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