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Ravenswood deals with open plant, closed plant

RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. -- Every day, hundreds of cars and pickup trucks park outside Constellium's aluminum rolling plant on the banks of the Ohio River.

Only a dozen cars sit in the large parking lots outside Century Aluminum's neighboring smelting plant. On one morning last week, the liveliest activities were chickadees and other birds flying and perching on a fence with birdhouses hooked to its beams.

When Century Aluminum closed its Jackson County smelter on Feb. 15, 2009, it laid off more than 650 workers. Despite the efforts of politicians from the local to the federal level, and attempts to give Century incentives to restart the plant, it remains closed.

Last year, members of United Steelworkers of America Local 5668 went on strike for more than a month at the Constellium plant. Union members eventually voted to approve a new five-year contract at the rolling mill.

Constellium employs about 1,000 people at the plant; 700 are union members. The company continues to provide health and pension benefits to more than 2,300 retired workers and their dependents -- and the plant pays $106 million a year in wages and benefits, according to the company's website.

"Everything is really quiet at Century. Constellium is working. ... They are two totally different companies," said Randy Moore, subdistrict director for the United Steelworkers of America, which represents workers at both plants.

Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. opened both the smelter and rolling mill back in 1958. A huge smokestack, labeled "Kaiser Aluminum," still towers above the plant grounds outside Ravenswood.

In 1989, Kaiser sold its facilities to Ravenswood Aluminum. When Ravenswood later sold the facility, it was split into two parts. Alcan Rolled Products operated the rolling mill, while Century operated the smelter. Constellium bought Alcan's plant in May 2011.

"With the Constellium aluminum plant operating, I am hopeful the other half with Century will get going," Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle said. "The economic reality is that I think we are waiting for the price of aluminum to go back up. It is not anywhere near what it needs to be.

"But we don't want to rely on one big thing. If we can get that plant open, it would be great. But a lesson that all of us have learned it that it is not good to pin all your hopes on one big industry -- aluminum, coal or anything else."

Mike Dildine, a Century Aluminum spokesman, said last week, "There are no new developments on the Ravenswood aluminum smelter that I can tell you about.

"We are continuing to evaluate alternative power supply arrangements and rates that could allow us to restart that facility. We remain absolutely committed to restarting the plant. Everything we are doing is toward that end," Dildine said.

Last month, Century bought an aluminum smelter in Hawesville, Ky., for $61 million.

Century officials have said low aluminum prices and high electricity costs led Century to close its smelter more than four years ago.

In an effort to get Century to restart the plant, state legislators passed an annual tax credit last year, worth up to $20 million annually, for the company. The state Public Service Commission ruled that Century could get a lower rate from Appalachian Power for electricity, but not if the risk associated with that lower rate was borne by other Apco customers. Century officials said the PSC's deal wasn't good enough to warrant restarting the plant.

If the company decides to reopen, 450 jobs could be restored almost immediately, according to previous company estimates. Another 200 jobs could be added later.

Asked about the possibility of lowered electric rates for the Century plant, Ihle said, "They have been talking to the PSC [Public Service Commission]. My sense is that there will not be much movement left. The PSC denied the request [to require Appalachian Power to charge lower rates] and denied the appeal. It is kind of out of our control."

Meanwhile, the mayor wants to better the business climate in his town, with or without Century.

"People recognize what a good place Ravenswood is. We have the Ohio River. We have a direct line to Columbus, Ohio. We have a railroad next to the river. We are between Charleston and Parkersburg," Ihle said.

"If someone wants to do business in this region, this is the perfect place to do that. That is the message I want to get out," he said.

Downtown Ravenswood has several open businesses. But it also features many vacant buildings and storefronts, including four directly across the street from City Hall.

The town's main intersection, at Walnut and Washington streets, features four buildings. Diane's Beauty Salon is open, but the three other storefronts are vacant.

The northbound block on Washington Street has other vacant stores, but also features antique shops, a baseball card shop, a furniture store and River City Fitness.

 Jared Bloxton, a recent University of Charleston graduate, opened the new fitness center in March.

"A lot of jobs were lost when Century closed," Bloxton said last week. "But I have seen a lot of businesses open. We are a very resilient community. Everybody helps each other.

"Everything is picking up. The economy is getting a little better," said Bloxton, also a member of Ravenswood's City Council. "I decided to run for Council last year. I hope to encourage young people to get involved."

Cheryl Greathouse runs the Cozy Cupboard, a popular local restaurant in an old Victorian home near City Hall.

"I was born and raised here. The city built up in the 1950s. It is picking up a lot recently.

"Today, I operate the only locally owned restaurant in town, featuring home-cooked food and locally-grown vegetables," Greathouse said. "We have a lot of retirees, but there are still a lot of kids in our schools."  

She said nine vacant homes were sold in the last 90 days.

Lucy J. Harbert, Ihle's predecessor as mayor, still hopes Century Aluminum will reopen.

"They are still working with American Electric Power. Electricity is always a problem. It is expensive. And the price of aluminum is down now.

"Ravenswood needs that shot in the arm. It would bring back 650 to 700 good-paying jobs. I would like to see people coming back into Ravenswood.

"A lot of men who lost their jobs when Century closed retired. Some others moved on. We have quite a few homes up for sale.

Karen Gorrell, whose husband Mike worked at the Ravenswood plant for 33 years, is a leader in the fight for Century retirees fighting to get their health benefits back.

"I don't think anything has changed. It has been devastating from day one," Gorrell said last week. "Four years later, there are still uninsured retirees. It almost makes you angrier now than it did when it happened."

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said, "I am concerned about manufacturing facilities and jobs throughout West Virginia. Manufacturing is one of the most important sectors of our economy. We continue to lose manufacturing jobs. In April, we lost another 200.

"We are now at an all-time low in West Virginia for manufacturing employment, since we began measuring manufacturing jobs in the 1930s," said Roberts, who hopes recent natural gas discoveries in the Marcellus Shale will reverse that trend.

"But as long as electricity prices keep going up, we will be losing one of our major advantages. I am very concerned about the future of manufacturing in West Virginia," Roberts said.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

 

 


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