03/28/08 — Duplin, Sampson wait on power plant decision

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Duplin, Sampson wait on power plant decision

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 28, 2008 1:49 PM

By Monday, Duplin County officials are hoping to find out whether or not their $3.5 million tax grant incentive proposal is going to pay off as they wait for poultry waste management company Fibrowatt to announce its choice between Duplin and Sampson counties for a new litter-fueled power plant.

The announcement is expected by the end of the month.

The company is expected to create between 40 and 50 jobs and invest approximately $150 million.

Duplin County Manager Mike Aldridge explained that their offer was based on what they were advised Sampson's offer would be by former Duplin economic development director Woody Brinson. However, he noted, they're not just giving the money away.

"We would tie it to job creation and them actually investing that amount. We want to make sure they do what they say they'll do," Aldridge said, adding that the funds would be paid back to the company over a period of seven to 10 years.

However, according to John Swope, executive director of Sampson County's economic development commission, his commissioners have only offered a 10-year $1.5 million tax grant incentive package to the company.

Duplin also offered to secure an option for a piece of property about a mile south of Warsaw for the plant -- with the provision that Fibrowatt pay the county back if the project comes to fruition.

Looking to expand their operation from Benson, Minn., Fibrowatt spokesman Terry , vice president of environmental and public affairs, explained that they first came to North Carolina nearly three years ago at the behest of several economic development agencies.

Today, they're hoping to build three plants -- beginning with one in the east and then moving into the piedmont and west.

The plants burn litter through a standard combustion process, producing steam-generated electricity and ash for fertilizer. It is, Walmsley said, a very clean, odorless and contained process all the way from the trucking of the litter to the actual burning of it.

But before such technology can be seen in eastern North Carolina, the company must first decide which of the state's leading poultry counties it wants to settle in.

"It's our expectation and hope that we'll be able to complete this (process) by the end of the month," Walmsley said.

The decision, though, he continued, will be a hard one.

Both counties have a readily available source of poultry litter and an interest from farmers looking to get rid of it.

In Duplin, though, finding a location for the plant has been a bit of a process.

The first proposal was for about a half-mile north of Warsaw. It, however, was in a populated minority neighborhood.

Fortunately, county officials feel the new location is better.

"It's a little further out of town," Aldridge said. "It's a little more rural in nature and I think as far as land use in concerned, it's a little more suitable."

The second tract of land was chosen after the first drew such vehement protests from some county residents concerned about the plant's impact on their quality of life that the commissioners responded by taking the site off the table entirely.

"They've been very close to the public on this," Aldridge said of the commissioners.

Now it's just a matter of waiting for a decision.

"We put something in their hands they could say yes or no to. Now we're just waiting for their response. We should know pretty quick," he said.

For its part, however, Fibrowatt isn't tipping its hand one way or the other -- saying simply that they've been impressed with all the sites put forward by the two counties.

"We just want to make sure we're making the right decision," Walmsley said. "Each county we've dealt with has done a great job of providing viable sites for us to evaluate."

Such candor -- though something Fibrowatt prides itself on -- is unusual to hear from local economic development groups and companies interested in coming to any given area.

"If you look at the history of Fibrowatt it's always been a very open process," Walmsley said. "I've always felt the best way to get to a long-term potential relationship is to be very open about what's coming to the area. We're not afraid to talk about the issues, because we have enough confidence that we have the answers."

It is, Aldridge said, hopefully the beginning of a trend.

"They've always been very upfront," he said. "I'd like to think this could lead to a change in how we do business."