Alcoa, Stanly County Square Off Over Jobs

Sep 26, 2011

Tensions have heightened once again between Alcoa and government officials. The aluminum giant says it's found a company to move onto the site of its smelter in Badin, which closed 2002. The new company - Clean Tech Silicon and Bar LLC - says it will bring hundreds of jobs, but only if Stanly County drops its opposition to Alcoa's hydropower relicensing effort. Thus far, that's a demand the county has been unwilling to meet. 

When your county's unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, no elected official wants to turn away the promise of new jobs. So you can imagine Stanly County Commissioners are in an uncomfortable situation. People jeered the commission at a rally organized a few weeks ago to urge support for Alcoa's latest offer.

Here are the basics: Alcoa says it's found a company called Clean Tech Silicon and Bar LLC that will spend $300 million turning the Badin smelter site into a facility to make silicon and also recycle steel. The company says it'll bring at least 450 jobs, paying between $40,000 and $55,000 on average.

Clean Tech board member David Stickler says the Badin site is ideal. But there's a catch. "We can't go into a situation where we have lawsuits against our landowner," says Stickler. The landowner in this case is Alcoa, of course. And one of the primary lawsuits against the company is from Stanly County itself.

County manager Andy Lucas says about $5 million taxpayer of money has gone into fighting Alcoa's effort to renew its hydropower license on the Yadkin River over the last several years. Alcoa built the dams about 100 years ago to power its smelter, but now sells the electricity for a profit. Governor Bev Perdue and Stanly County officials want the state to benefit from those dams. Lucas says other states are able to harness hydroelectricity on their rivers to recruit "thousands of jobs and billions of investment."

"So whatever kind of resolution we do come to, we need to make sure we're getting that kind of public benefit for the free use of the Yadkin River," says Lucas. And so far, Stanly County Commissioners are not convinced that Clean Tech's promise of 450 high-paying jobs is enough to warrant the county dropping all opposition to Alcoa's quest for another 50 years on the Yadkin River.

"With a long-term license, we believe there needs to be long-term assurances of public benefit," says Lucas. David Stickler says Clean Tech is committed to Badin for "decades."

"We don't put $300 million of investment in the ground and remove those assets in a couple of years," says Stickler. "These facilities will be there for decades."

Clean Tech has also pledged it will not take any of the property tax breaks it might qualify for - and Stickler says the company will donate an additional half million dollars a year to Stanly County's public school system. But Stanly County Commissioner Tony Dennis says he's yet to see an actual contract from Clean Tech or Alcoa.

Mistrust runs deep between the county and Alcoa. Commissioner Dennis has felt lately that Alcoa is holding the promise of new jobs hostage in this negotiation. "I just got a bad feeling about this," says Dennis. On Friday morning, Stanly County officials met with Governor Bev Perdue and she encouraged them to keep "working on an agreement."

Afterward, Commissioner Dennis said he was more comfortable with a possible resolution, but he's wary of Clean Tech. The company is so new it has no website. Stickler says it's led by a coalition of investors with experience in the steel industry, including former Nucor CEO John Correnti. Alcoa also happens to be a major investor, owning about 20 percent of Clean Tech, according to Stickler. That makes Commissioner Dennis nervous. "I mean, are these true, real companies or are they just paper companies propped up to get what they want?" says Dennis. What Alcoa wants is another 50-year license to operate hydropower dams on the Yadkin River.