April 12, 2012

Stamping plant: A miracle | Charleston Daily Mail

It's the Miracle on MacCorkle.

Otherwise known as the South Charleston stamping plant.

In May 2007, then-Gov. Joe Manchin decided to loan stamping plant building owner Ray Park $15 million in state money to refurbish the vacant factory, and Park pledged to invest $20 million of his own.

Quizzed at the time about the wisdom of committing so much state money to an old, dirty, empty building, Manchin was quick to say that Park would always have more at stake than the state.

When Park admitted he didn't have a single customer for the plant, the whole idea seemed even more risky.

While Manchin and Park were making big commitments, the American auto industry was heading into a downward spiral. A Detroit editor who closely follows the industry told me at the time that he thought Park might have lost his mind.

You could have made a case for that point of view. After all, the guys who owned Union Stamping had invested all of their retirement savings to build a business and failed and dozens of independent stamping plants around the country were sitting empty.

But Park had seen the South Charleston plant come back several times before. He had faith and was a believer in Manchin. Park also had a trusted group of seasoned employees. And he knows a lot of people in the business.

At one point, I asked a knowledgeable person how long they thought Park could hold on before running out of money. "That's like asking when God will run out of money," my observer replied.

Park not only refurbished the plant, he installed millions of dollars in state-of-the-art robots.

After trying every way imaginable to lure a tenant, Park said in February that he believed something nice would eventually happen at his South Charleston plant but the automobile business had changed and auto parts wouldn't be stamped there again.

On March 19, Park paid off the $15 million state loan in full. The West Virginia Economic Development Authority earned 4.73 percent interest on the loan.

At some recent point, Park was talking with Gestamp Chief Executive Officer Jeff Wilson, the conversation turned serious and one thing quickly led to another. The result: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin stood in the plant parking lot Tuesday to announce Gestamp will invest at least $100 million and create hundreds of new jobs in South Charleston.

Kanawha Commission President Kent Carper said Tuesday, "This was an impossible thing to accomplish" and "This was not an easy thing to do" and "West Virginia competed -- and won!"

Meanwhile, there's talk in Ohio -- which was competing for Gestamp's business -- that General Motors still has more capacity than it needs and may close five more plants than originally expected.

Such talk makes the South Charleston news all the more amazing.

No doubt problems will arise before the first new worker starts a press or robot inside the plant. Surely there will be future ups and downs in the auto industry. But for the moment, there it is: The Miracle on MacCorkle.

By:  George Hohmann