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Energy plant to bring jobs, revenue to region

It’s nearly impossible to put a dollar amount on the economic impact the $500 million power plant would have on the Middletown community, financial experts said.

But they said the Middletown region certainly would benefit from the power plant that NTE Energy LLC of St. Augustine, Fla., publicly announced Tuesday that it wants to build near Oxford State and Cincinnati Dayton roads.

NTE Energy’s proposal is to build a plant running on natural gas on 50 acres that would generate more than 500 megawatts of electric power, which could supply approximately 400,000 homes, company officials said.

If everything goes as planned, construction of the new power plant, called the Middletown Energy Center, will create 300 to 400 jobs, and once open in 2018, 25 to 30 permanent operator and maintenance technician jobs, and provide a cleaner source of energy to the region’s electricity supplies, said Tim Eves, senior vice president of development for NTE Energy.

Eves said the company is spending “a lot of money on development.”

The project does not qualify to receive state tax credits, according to the Dayton Development Coalition. However, Middletown officials said they anticipate NTE will request a 20-year property tax abatement from the city.

Hiring will not start until at least this time next year. Company officials said the positions will be “good-paying jobs that you can support a family on.”

That has the possibility to create “a potential economic boom” for the city, said Janice Kinghorn, an economics professor at Miami University Middletown. “These will be good-paying jobs, stable jobs.”

She said the plant could be the “catalyst to move the economy in the right direction” because it may spur additional business in the area.

City officials, construction union representatives, Middletown residents and business owners agree. The timing of the announcement that NTE Energy chose Middletown to build one of its three power plants — the other two are in Texas and North Carolina — in the United States, was perfect for the cash-strapped city.

In recent years, the Manchester Inn, once considered the city’s “gem,” has closed and is on the market; the city is trying to sell its golf course, Weatherwax Golf Course, because of budget concerns; Target announced it was closing the Middletown store location in the spring because of poor sales; and Finish Line recently closed inside the Towne Mall Galleria.

The news couldn’t be coming at a better time considering the city’s employment health. Ten years ago, on average, there were 24,200 Middletown residents working and the unemployment rate in the city was 6.3 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services. Last year, on average, there were 21,900 Middletown residents working and the unemployment rate was 7.7 percent.

Then the city received “a shot in the arm” last week, said Les Landen, the city’s law director.

Once the power plant is open, Landen said between $2 million to $2.5 million in wages will generate $35,000 to $40,000 in payroll taxes for the city.

“Is that number huge? No,” Landen said. “But economic development is a long and slow process. It’s a step, a good step.”

When asked if he could attach an economic value to the plant, Landen said, “There’s more to things than just numbers.”

He was quick to point out that when the construction workers are in town, they will spend money at hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. And if the permanent workers are from out of town, they will need to buy homes or rent apartments, he said.

He said the plant is “a great opportunity for the community” because it will provide high-tech jobs, what he called “exactly the type of jobs we’re trying to attract.”

Once known as a steel town, Middletown hopes to move in “a different direction,” Landen said.

Are there any negatives regarding the power plant?

“Nothing jumps out at us,” Landen said. Then he mentioned increased traffic along Oxford State Road, which already is heavily traveled because of AK Steel.

“You can always find negatives,” he said. “But the positives so outweigh the negatives.”

David Fehr, Butler County director of development, added: “We look at it as something positive. Nobody wants one of those in their backyard, but this is a fairly well-established industrial area. It should be a fairly good neighbor for the community.”

Landen said the company’s decision to build in Middletown shows that the city is “a great place to be and to build.”

Then he added: “This is a positive piece in the puzzle. It shows that we want to move forward and we are a place where people want to be.”

Rick Pearce, president of the Chamber of Commerce Serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, believes once the plant opens it will “put our area on the map when people hear about this new clean energy process. It will draw attention to us. It will have a positive impact on the area.”

Denise Hamet, the city’s economic development director, said the project was “very significant” for the city because an outside company contacted Middletown and said, “We want to be here.”

She said the deal is a “win” for the city and “that’s what we are looking at.”

In the last few weeks, as negotiations turned serious and company representatives met with city officials, Hamet said the company said they wanted to be part of the community. They asked how they could help the local school district, she said.

She said the keys to a successful partnership are “collaboration and connection,” and the company “saw potential in the community.”

Dave Burrows, director of economic development programs for Dayton Development Coalition, called the proposed plan “a huge investment.”

When asked about the Middletown location, he said: “Logistically it’s a great place and it’s in the midst of multiple energy sources.”

More job creation is happening 30 jobs at a time, Burrows told the Journal-News in a 2013 interview.

“You will see more companies in the 25 to 100 jobs rather than the 500 to 2,000 jobs, although we’re trying to get those,” Burrows said. But new job announcements for more than 500 positions at a time are “few and far between.”

At Atrium Medical Center in Middletown, the number of employees the last 10 years has risen from 1,470 to 1,581, according to hospital officials.

Since the lockout at AK Steel nearly eight years ago, the number of union members at the Middletown Works has dropped from 2,700 to 1,700 and there are about 2,100 union and salaried workers in Middletown.

Chris Webster, business agent for Plumber Pipefitters and Mechanical Local 392 in Cincinnati, said he was “astounded” when he read in the newspaper that the power plant was wanting to build in Middletown.

“It’s a great thing for the Middletown area,” he said. “This will be a major job.”

He said his company has heard “bits and pieces” and had “feelers” about the power plant wanting to use union workers.

The estimated cost to build the power plant — $500 million — would represent the largest business investment in Butler County in recent years, bigger than the approximately $400 million SunCoke Energy coke plant built in Middletown to supply AK Steel Holding Corp. SunCoke Energy Middletown opened at the end of 2011.

The proposed power plant is also a larger capital investment than the current mega-retail project in the pipeline in Liberty Twp. at the intersection of Interstate 75 and Ohio 129. Columbus developer Steiner + Associates is supposed to start construction this year of Liberty Center, a mixed retail, entertainment, dining and housing center that would cost more than $300 million in its first phase of development.

“What makes (NTE Energy) so expensive is all the equipment,” Fehr said. “That helps the local economy because even if parts come from all around the world, locally you have to buy steel, piping, insulation and bricks, for example.”

The chance to bring any new jobs to the city was welcome news, especially for businesses near the plant’s site.

Erica Kuhbander, new owner of Shear Kaos Salon, 1300 Cincinnati Dayton Road, just down the street from the proposed site, said the plant “sounds good for the community. I hope any new business, they use local contractors. That’s the main thing.”

Roland Whitaker, licensed master barber/owner of Family Barber and Beauty Shop, 2907 Cincinnati Dayton Road, said while the plant isn’t scheduled to open until 2018, the jobs it’s expected to create “sure is good news.”

Middletown council member Anita Scott Jones added: “This is exactly the type of economic development we need to bring to the city with the number of jobs and the type of business.”

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