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Gaunch believes cracker will come to West Virginia

West Virginia Commerce Secretary tours Jackson, Roane businesses

West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch speaks during the Jackson County Economic Development Authority’s annual luncheon meeting Wednesday at Sorella Ristorante in Fairplain. It was one of several stops Gaunch made during a listening tour of Jackson County businesses. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

FAIRPLAIN — While visiting Jackson County Wednesday, West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said he believes a cracker plant will come to the Mountain State within the next decade.

Gaunch made the remarks during the Jackson County Economic Development Authority’s annual luncheon meeting at Sorella Ristorante in Fairplain as he spoke about his optimism for the Mountain State and this region.

“I’ll predict to you that over the next 10 years you’re going to see this Ohio River valley grow exponentially,” he said, citing the automotive, petrochemical and energy industries in particular.

Gaunch noted that “everybody wants a cracker plant” and he believes “it will happen.” He said the downstream businesses related to such a facility would provide an even bigger economic impact.

Gaunch did not reference a specific location for such a plant, although it had been anticipated in recent years that a cracker would be built in Wood County. The $4 billion Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise, also known as Project ASCENT, was announced by state officials in 2013 with great fanfare.

West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, center, speaks with a worker at Mustang Survival in Spencer Tuesday as Roane County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Mark Whitley listens. It was one of the stops on Gaunch’s listening tour of Roane County businesses. (Photo provided by the West Virginia Department of Commerce)

Brazil-based Odebrecht was developing the project, which would have been operated by Braskem America. A 360-acre property in Washington Bottom was purchased in 2014, with environmental studies performed, permits applied for and ethane supplies secured. The project appeared to stall due to changes in the natural gas market, and Odebrecht withdrew in 2016, though Braskem intended to continue with the efforts.

During a July legislative hearing, a state development official indicated Braskem no longer planned to pursue the cracker plant. A statement from the company said a real estate adviser had been engaged to field inquiries about the property.

Gaunch left before the end of the meeting to continue his visits to Jackson County employers. An emailed request for clarification of his remarks was not immediately answered.

In addition to the Economic Development Authority luncheon, Gaunch made stops Wednesday at Al-Rec LLC, Concordance Healthcare Solutions and Valley Inc. in Millwood, SDR and Star Plastics in Ravenswood and SwifTees Custom Apparel in Fairplains. On Tuesday, he was in Roane County to tour Armacell, Jeff Fetty Designs, Mustang Survival and Roane General Hospital.

They were the latest of the listening tours Gaunch has taken since the former state senator was appointed commerce secretary nearly a year ago. He said in addition to trying to attract new businesses, the Commerce Department needs to thank existing employers and communicate with them.

“Our goal is to help where we can, (interject) government where it needs to be, help you do what you do best,” Gaunch said. “And then the other side of it is (to) get government out of the way.”

Gaunch said he was glad to be in Jackson County, which had the lowest unemployment rate in West Virginia in September at 2.8 percent and was second to Jefferson County in October at 3.1 percent.

“Congratulations to Jackson County,” he said. “What’s going on here is a model for the rest of the state.”

Gaunch was introduced by West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who Gaunch thanked for helping to pass legislation providing free tuition to community and technical colleges for state residents. That will help ensure West Virginia has the skilled workers current and future employers need, he said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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