One year later

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, October 20, 2010

FRANKLIN—Western Tidewater is on the “short list” of possible plant sites for three or four companies in the wood-products industry, the economic development director for Franklin and Southampton County said Monday.

The companies could create between 50 and 300 jobs each, said John Smolak, president and chief executive of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc.

Members of Western Tidewater’s economic recovery task force met Monday with the staff of The Tidewater News to provide an update on job-creation efforts one year after the announcement that International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill would close. Participants included Smolak, Franklin Mayor Jim Council, Isle of Wight County Supervisor Chairman Phil Bradshaw and Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson.

The closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill has made the area “especially attractive” to companies interested in wood resources, Smolak said.

“We have seen many of those companies come through here, some with just cursory reviews, but some with real projects,” Smolak said.

The companies are in different stages of the decision-making and competitive process, he said.

“They know that in the climate we’re in, that it’s smart to shop your project around a little bit with other states, so the competition is fierce for these projects,” Smolak said.

Johnson said county leaders recognized a long time ago they needed to put themselves “in a position to compete globally for new investment.”

He said prospect activity has skyrocketed since work began at the Turner Tract industrial site.

“You can’t just show them a pasture or a corn field or a cotton field and expect to compete globally for new investment,” Johnson said. “We have put ourselves in a position that we can compete.”

Bradshaw said Isle of Wight officials have also been working to compete globally. Interest in the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park on U.S. Route 460 has grown substantially in recent years, despite the slow economy.

IP officials have told local leaders an announcement regarding the repurposing of the mill would be made by the end of this year.

Smolak said he wasn’t aware of any overlap between the companies he was referring to and those interested in the repurposing of the IP mill.

Bradshaw and Councill said all of the interest in the mill site has been unsolicited and IP is reviewing its options.

“There is something substantial occurring. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who the players are, but at least they’re doing that, and they didn’t have to,” Councill said. “They’re investing in the mill in its current status to have a product that they can repurpose, so I think that’s good news.”

Councill said mill repurposing is expected to create about 200 to 300 jobs.

“And it could be more, depending on the mixture of companies that they bring in,” he said. “They’ve said there won’t be 1,100, but who knows over time if the rest of the campus could be developed into other things.”

“We’re still pretty much waiting to see what IP’s going to do,” Bradshaw said, adding that the company hasn’t involved local economic development officials in its process.