Ravenswood: Century plant "doesn't define us" - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Ravenswood: Century plant 'doesn't define us'

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Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle says Century Aluminum’s plant closure is a setback, but the town has plenty of good news in its future. Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle says Century Aluminum’s plant closure is a setback, but the town has plenty of good news in its future.
Karen Gorrell, a spokesman for Century Aluminum retirees, said people’s lives are on the line while the company delays reopening the Ravenswood plant. Karen Gorrell, a spokesman for Century Aluminum retirees, said people’s lives are on the line while the company delays reopening the Ravenswood plant.
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RAVENSWOOD, WV -

Four years ago, the closure of Century Aluminum's plant left about 650 people without work in a region where 650 jobs mean a whole lot.

The plant closure spun local and West Virginia officials into a panic. Now, those at the local level say the jobs impact has largely been absorbed. Meanwhile, retirees from the plant continue to struggle as health and retiree benefits are on hold waiting for the plant to reopen. 

Aluminum prices, Century says, are simply too low and electricity prices too high to justify the $90 million investment it would require to reopen the plant. Even though prices are low, CEO Michael Bless has said he is confident the plant will one day be operational again. 

"The restart of Ravenswood remains a priority, and we are in discussions with the power provider and other key constituencies aimed at finding a suitable arrangement," Bless said in the company's first-quarter earnings report. 

The CEO is referring to negotiations to get a better deal on electric power. Formerly the largest consumer of electricity in West Virginia, the Ravenswood plant's viability is closely tied to electricity costs. 

The company asked for and was granted a number of concessions from the Legislature including up to $20 million in annual tax breaks related to the plant's electric bill. The Public Service Commission spent months working on rates that would be affordable for the plant. 

Century even attempted to have portions of their electric bill deferred to other customers when aluminum prices were low, though it would pay an extra share when prices went back up. 

According to an Appalachian Power spokesman who spoke with The State Journal shortly after first quarter earnings were announced by Century, there are no pending negotiations between Appalachian Power and Century Aluminum. 

"They're not waiting for us for anything; it's up to them," said Jeri Matheney, Appalachian Power spokeswoman.

Further discouraging some in Ravenswood, Century purchased the Sebree Aluminum Plant in Kentucky just two weeks ago at an expense of about $61 million. In response to a request from The State Journal, a Century spokesperson insisted the deal didn't change anything in moving forward at the Ravenswood plant. 

When the plant first announced its closure, many in the region thought the economic impact would be devastating.

In 2008, Jackson County had an unemployment rate of just under 5 percent. In December of 2009, the year the Ravenswood plant closed, Jackson County unemployment more than doubled to 12 percent. Jackson County had an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in March, an improvement over 9.6 percent the same time last year. The statewide average is about 7 percent. 

The civilian work force in Jackson County, according to WorkForce West Virginia is just about 10,800 people as of March.

"There's been setbacks," said Mark Whitely, executive director of the Jackson County Development Authority. "We're still optimistic." 

Whitely said most of the people who lost their jobs have since found new work. Economic development and elected officials continue to follow aluminum prices however, because a reopening of the plant would drive unemployment in the county down even further.

"It may not be this year, it may be next year," Whitely said, emphasizing the size of the plant and the potential impact it could have on the local economy. 

"We've been working very, very hard for this reopening," he said. "All of us have worked so hard so that Century could reopen. Century was a large employer, but we didn't have all our eggs in one basket." 

Some of the direct local effects of Century's closing was blunted by a geographically diverse work force. While the bulk of Century's employees were in the Jackson County area, they also commuted from surrounding counties and even Ohio. 

The plant closed amid an economic recession that pressured cities and towns across America. Now, Whitely said, Jackson County is beginning to see progress as the economy creeps into recovery. 

"We work daily to bring growth, but it is a challenge," he said. "We're in a global economy now. We are starting to see increased activity."

Michael Ihle, mayor of Ravenswood, also sees hope even without Century Aluminum.

"It doesn't define us," Ihle said. "We're more than just an aluminum plant as far as the city of Ravenswood is concerned. The plant isn't in the city, though many of our people worked there. There are other places to work and shop and do business and enjoy recreation."

Ihle said Ravenswood is "doing okay" without Century and is even finding new growth areas.

"There certainly are a number of people looking for employment, here and elsewhere," Ihle said. "That's not just a problem here. That's a problem everywhere in West Virginia and frankly most of the country. A lot of those folks have found new jobs."

Nearby is the Armstrong World Industries tile plant. Star Plastics and SDR Plastics are also successful regional employers. Constellium, an aluminum rolling mill, employs many in the Ravenswood area.

Further, the thriving shale gas industry in Northern West Virginia has many hoping for growth in direct drilling activity or downstream and midstream manufacturing opportunities.

"We're continuing to work where we can and we're hanging in there. We're still a good town to do business," Ihle said.

Ihle said Ravenswood is filled with great people who work hard. In addition, the town is centrally located between Parkersburg and Charleston with easy highway access to Columbus, Ohio. Rail and river access is also easily available and has long attracted business to the town. 

"When you combine those infrastructure assets and location, it's really a prime spot for a company who wants to do business here," Ihle said. "We're starting to see an up tick in business here. ... Instead of focusing on what we don't have, this situation has really caused us to turn our focus on to our assets and what we do have and getting the word out on what a good place this actually is."

Ihle said that the loss of the plant was certainly harmful, but he pointed to a number of other opportunities thriving or blossoming in Ravenswood.

"I don't want to make any mistake about — it's been difficult for individual families," Ihle said. "They've endured a lot. But, they've pulled together, we've pulled together and they're doing the best they can."

Ravenswood is beginning to look at economic opportunities beyond big manufacturers. He points to new and coming businesses such as a distillery opening in Ravenswood and other downtown shops. 

While the new businesses might not support hundreds of jobs, economic diversity and spreading employees across multiple employers might be a safer bet for towns that have historically depended on just a handful of industries.

 

"I think it's always time to focus on diverse industries and not just limit your focus on one," Ihle said. "From the city standpoint, I feel the political issue has played itself out for the most part. Now, it's not a matter of can the city of Ravenswood help this business grow or can the state of West Virginia help this business grow. It's really economics."

Just around the corner from the mayor's office, a city councilman has opened up a new gymnasium.

Jared Bloxton, owner of River City Fitness, opened his business just this year. He said there is optimism in the region and several businesses have been opening doors this year.

"I've seen the effect of the closure, but I think this is the most resilient city in the state," Bloxton said. 

Like so many people in the region, Ihle has an eye on aluminum prices.

"We're just waiting and watching like everyone else," Ihle said. "… Hopefully it will (reopen), but it's out of our hands."

Without the plant reopening, Ravenswood and the rest of Jackson County could possibly completely recover and even exceed previous levels of jobs and economic activity. However, one group — about 700 people — has retired from Century Aluminum and won't be seeing their benefits until the plant reopens.

"They're facing the loss of that coverage, and it's a reality for them," Ihle said. "I don't want to gloss over that — that hurts. It really hurts those families."

Karen Gorrell, Century Aluminum retiree spokeswoman, knows that hurt. She said the purchase of the new plant introduces some doubt about the plant. The retiree group has alternated between friend and adversary of the company. 

Gorrell wants the plant to reopen. She wants to see people back to work, but she also wants the suffering of those who were suddenly uninsured with little financial structure backing them in retirement to get the benefits they earned.

"I have quit trying to second guess Century Aluminum. I'm probably a 50/50 split (on whether the plant will open)," Gorrell said. "There's a good part of me of that really does think Century wants to reopen the plant. "

However, Gorrell added, buying the Sebree plant in Kentucky "makes you wonder if they're real serious about West Virginia."

"That plant really belongs to us," Gorrell said. "They've managed to pocket many millions of dollars by terminating our health care. Had they not done that, they may not have cash to buy a $61 million plant."

Century reported a net income of $8.3 million in just the first quarter of 2013. Century has claimed to be saving $18 million per quarter in not paying the benefits. Should the plant start, a settlement with retirees would mean $4 million per year to be divvied out to the retirees based on a current deal. 

That deal is not currently finalized and Gorrell said it would not be possible to gain court approval by the July 1 deadline. Now, she said the fate of the retirees is unsure even if the plant were to reopen soon. 

The deal was reached with retirees last year. A set sum would be paid out each year if the plant were to reopen. When the agreement was signed, the plan supported about 500 people. New retirees have expanded that list to 700 people, Gorrell said, with no increase in the settlement cost. 

Retirees lost their insurance in 2010. Early retirees, those between the ages of 55 and 65, lost their coverage the next year. 

Gorrell, 63 and without "five cents worth of insurance," says the suffering has been endless. 

"People's lives are on the line," Gorrell said. "I don't go to the doctor when I need to because I don't have insurance."

She said they keep waiting, and emotions have tumbled up and down as Century Aluminum has asserted optimism in reopening the plant.

She said retirees of Century Aluminum have already died waiting for care. She shared the story of Century retiree Sam McKinney, a man she said died of a heart attack on Valentine's Day after a date with his wife. He had just come back from a meeting where he was obviously distressed about his ability to take care of his wife's health.

McKinney's wife is now sent half of his pension, or about $300 per month. 

Another man, Bryce Turner, had myelogenous leukemia. He learned of his condition shortly before he learned he would no longer have insurance. Turner died last year. 

Gorrell teared up at the story of Turner, who she said inspired her in the fight for Century retirees. Clutching a t-shirt in memorial to Turner, Gorrell called his death "murder without a gun."

By Gorrell's count, 30 retirees have died since the plant closed. How many of those could have prevented by better health care or reduced stress, she said, is not obvious.

Gorrell said state and local officials have been great about doing all they can to please Century and retirees. She said now it is up to Century Aluminum and she just wishes the company would open the plant or sell it to someone who will.

"Quit playing us all for fools, including the state representatives that have tried so hard," Gorrell said. "They're using us all, and I'm tired of being used."

Jim Weltner, 72, started working at the plant in 1964 and put in 38 years working in Ravenswood. He retired in 2002, and for eight years he enjoyed a "Cadillac insurance plan."

"It was good," he said.

His first reaction to Century telling him he would lose his benefits was one of disbelief. He didn't think the company would be able to actually go through with it. 

"My initial thought was that if this goes to court they don't have a chance because this was guaranteed to us for a lifetime in writing," Weltner said. 

His wife needs 15 to 19 prescriptions, some of which Weltner says are  expensive. Weltner said retirees receive about $500 to $600 a month from their pensions. Medical expenses and basic needs tear through their pensions quickly. 

It's difficult for the many retirees to receive much additional assistance. Many own property, which keeps them off the rolls of a number of government assistance programs.

"The hospitals are going to own our homes," Weltner said. 

Weltner said the worst part is that these are benefits already paid for by retirees. Union contracts written long ago gave up vacation time, extra wages and other benefits in exchange for health care. The dangerous work, featuring exposure to carcinogens, extreme heat and potential accidents, was done mostly because he knew workers could take care of their families, he said.

"One of the worst things you can take from a man his is ability to take care of his family," Gorrell said. "… We're fighting for justice. We're fighting for what's right."