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Chester County is buzzing over potential for 1,500-job announcement

By Don Worthington
dworthington@heraldonline.com
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DON WORTHINGTON - dworthington@heraldonline.com
Barry Wilson, owner of Ezell Hardware in Chester, says he is hopeful that a proposed manufacturing plant would return economic balance to the county, giving people more money to spend.

Reports that a company may invest $560 million and employ 1,500 has given Chester County residents hope.

The buzz includes talk of jobs, spin-off investments, new housing, even a revitalized downtown Chester where for-sale and for-rent signs now outnumber the open signs on storefronts.

The optimism comes in a county that has struggled through the recession and the collapse of the state’s textile industry.

When textiles left, Chester died, many say.

Retailers of all kinds moved or closed. Those that stayed struggled.

When the recession hit, Chester residents seeking work had to leave the county to find a job. In 2009, the height of the downturn, one out of every five Chester County residents was looking for employment, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chester’s current unemployment rate is 7.4 percent, 11th highest in the state. While the unemployment rate has dropped, those seeking help through agencies such as the Turning Point, which operates a food pantry, remains steady.

Many Chester residents are guarding against false hope. Their code words are “nervously excited,” or “controlled optimism.” They have heard big promises of jobs before, but plans fell through.

“This town lies,” said the Rev. Charlie Stringfellow as he waited on his usual order of a scrambled egg, grits with cheese and a slice of toast at Gene’s Restaurant in downtown Chester.

Stringfellow, 69, said he has seen promises made over and over again, particularly at election time. Once the election is over, the promises disappear, he said.

“If they pull this off, I’ll apologize,” he said while stirring his egg and grits together.

Others at Stringfellow’s table were more optimistic.

“Chester is getting a future,” said the Rev. Ronald Feaster, who worked four different Springs Industries textile mills over 30 years. “But promises have been made and there has been no action. We need action now.”

Stringfellow and other diners at Gene’s recited a long list of projects that were going to transform Chester County, but for one reason or another faltered.

• In 1999, a Fiat subsidiary considered Chester County for an engine manufacturing plant. Alabama convinced Fiat to go there.

• In 2000, Nissan considered Chester County. The $1 billion, 4,000-worker plant went to Mississippi.

• In 2006, Mel Graham, a nephew of evangelist Billy Graham, announced plans for “Montrose Plantation,” a 6,000 acre development with 8,000 homes. The recession put the project on hold.

• In 2008, there was talk of two ethanol plants coming to Chester County; each could have returned $100 million annually to the county’s economy.

• In 2009, word spread of a $500 million incinerator project that would have created 50 jobs.

“We’ve been the bridesmaid too long,” said Carlisle Roddey, the county’s supervisor. “We need to be the bride.”

These previous frustrations are one reason Chester County officials are tight-lipped about the latest project, called “Summer.” The county council has given initial approval to incentives that would reduce the company’s tax bill. The incentives must be approved twice more.

If Chester County officials follow customary economic development practices, the name of the company could be revealed at the June 2 meeting.

Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, companies receiving a tax break or other incentives must be disclosed after the offer is accepted by the company, or the public announcement of the project, or finalization of any incentive agreement, whichever occurs later.

In September the council passed an ordinance reducing taxes for “Project 1223” without revealing the business’s name. Later that month, the state announced “Project 1223” was JN Fibers, a Chinese-based company that takes plastic bottles and spins them into polyester yarn. JN Fibers is investing $45 million and plans to create 318 jobs.

The lack of information concerns Chester residents.

“There is no evidence something is coming,” said Brown Feaster, 70, who has lived all his life in Chester. . “But I’m for anything that puts us back to work.”

Feaster and others said Chester officials need to tell residents the kind of manufacturing plant being considered, and the plant’s likely location.

Whether the proposed plant signals a rebirth of Chester’s middle class that once worked in the textile mills is difficult to know, according to residents. A rebirth, said Ronald Gregory, “depends on the people, whether they are going to work.”

Barry Wilson, owner of Ezell Hardware, a downtown fixture since 1886, said, “there are a lot of good working people here; there’s more good than bad.”

Wilson said Chester’s economic ills are not solely textile based. Small towns like Chester “have taken a beating because of big-box retail competition.”

Nonetheless, Wilson said a new plant of the size and stature under consideration would do much to restore the balance in Chester and surrounding counties. “We need to have the plants running regularly, have the people working regularly and then people working will have money to spend,” he said.

And if the new plant needs pipes, Wilson is ready. In the back of his hardware store, a throwback to the 1950s with individual bins for nails and screws, there are racks holding pipes of various sizes along one wall. There is a machine to bend and thread the pipe to a customer’s needs.

“If they need pipes, I’m the man,” Wilson said.

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