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In a time of economic challenges, the county has accomplished an amazing feat: putting new, job-providing employers into 10 vacant industrial spaces.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Brad Chrisley (left), a Blue Bird Resins maintenance and facilities supervisor, removes an antiquated sprinkler box from a utility wall as Victor Hernandez holds a flashlight for him in the company’s facility in downtown Pulaski Friday.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Blue Bird Resins is also occupying the former shipping and receiving warehouse of Pulaski Furniture on Madison Avenue in downtown Pulaski. The most recent addition to Pulaski’s new employers is a candle company that supplies Walmart stores.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Blue Bird Resins, which makes plastic trash into usable pellets, decided to move into part of the former Pulaski Furniture Complex in downtown Pulaski.
Monday, September 30, 2013
Local officials were excited for all the usual reasons when Korona S.A. announced plans last week to turn a vacant building in Pulaski County into a candle factory. Gov. Bob McDonnell flew into town to make the announcement and present an oversized incentive check to the company.
But the news meant a little something extra to Shawn Utt, who leads the county’s economic development efforts. For him, it was about closing the book on a darker chapter in the county’s history — one plagued with abandoned buildings, a dwindling work force and sinking morale.
In 2009, 10 of the county’s largest facilities sat empty, and 11.3 percent of its workers sat at home without jobs.
Four years later, Utt celebrated as Korona filled the last of those 10 vacancies.
“If you did that in a decade, I would say that’s a wonderfully successful decade,” New River Valley Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Aric Bopp said. “And we’ve done that in less than half that period of time.”
The story of the economic downturn in Pulaski County mirrors that told around Southwest Virginia and, to some degree, the rest of the country.
The textile and furniture industries that had long propped up the local economy had moved overseas, and Volvo Trucks was scaling back amid new regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By 2006, plants were shutting down at an alarming rate and unemployment was on the rise.
The Renfro sock factory was one of the first to go, taking with it the 315 jobs it once supported. Jefferson Yarns’ Hill Plant, Findlay Industries, Pulaski Furniture, Lumbee Enterprises, New River Industries’ Fairlawn plant and others followed .
By the time the dust settled, the county was littered with abandoned factories that served as constant reminders of the thousands of jobs lost.
But like a true optimist, Utt said that’s when he knew it was time to go to work.
“Morale was low because of the unemployment,” he said. “But seeing the empty buildings, in my opinion, it was the opportunities that we had that we didn’t have before. Now is the time to start landing some really great projects and filling these buildings up.”
In those days, marketing was the easy part. Most companies looking to relocate have specific needs but aren’t looking to build a new facility from scratch. If you don’t have what they’re looking for, they’ll go elsewhere.
Luckily for Pulaski County, it had “something for everybody,” Utt said.
Utt and Bopp said they teamed up with the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors to create the kind of environment that is attractive to new industries. They offered up incentive packages and began preparing long-abandoned buildings for their new owners.
Dan Oberlander, owner of Blue Bird Resins, fondly remembers the days he spent being courted by local officials in 2011.
He was looking to open a new facility where he would convert once landfill-bound plastic into recyclable pellets. The move promised just 10 jobs, but he said it seemed as though Bopp never got the memo that he was just a “little guy.”
“I came down to Pulaski, and even all the locals were saying it’s dead, there’s no jobs, there’s no work,” Oberlander said. “But I was looking around and I was saying, ‘This is a vibrant area.’”
Blue Bird eventually decided to move into part of the former Pulaski Furniture Complex, a 1.2 million-square-foot facility that had been bought and chopped up into smaller units. As the area continued to rebound, the facility attracted about eight tenants from multiple sectors, ranging from a mulch company to someone using the space to build a boat.
“Listen, nobody wants to see an industry pick up and leave the United States, but on the other hand some of the furniture buildings have been our best assets,” Oberlander said. “The old furniture buildings have helped our business.”
One success led to another, and pretty soon the vibe around Pulaski was changing. The community that once revolved around the textile, furniture and auto industries was making its comeback with an eclectic group of saviors.
Factories that once built parts for Volvo were now being used by Phoenix Packaging to make yogurt containers, Dove Vinyl Windows to make windows, and Korona scented candles for Walmart.
Even the old Renfro sock factory, which had gone into disrepair after sitting empty for close to a decade, found a new tenant in Falls Stamping and Welding Company.
“It’s going to be a project. I don’t even know if the building has a working bathroom,” Falls Stamping CFO Jason Taft said. “This isn’t going to be an overnight deal, install some lights and ready to roll type thing. … It’s a multiphase, multiyear project but we’re in it for the long haul.
“We really like the little town of Pulaski. From what we can tell, there’s this sense of pride and we’re hoping that will reflect in the work force down the road.”
There have been a few setbacks in the area, such as when the Grede foundry in Radford announced it would close at the end of the year, costing the area 250 jobs. But overall, Bopp said, it seems they’ve been able to cancel out each job lost with one gained somewhere else.
The unemployment rate in 2012 had dropped to 6.5 percent from a high of 11.3 percent in 2009.
Asked how he might classify the county’s new eclectic economic base, Utt, named Pulaski’s town manager last week, took a long pause before conceding it’s hard to tell.
“I don’t think diversity is ever a bad thing,” Bopp said. “I think the more we can diversify our economy throughout the region and the town, the better off you are. Because, generally, things don’t hit across all industries at once.
“We’ve kind of done some of the easy work. In 2009, it’s scary as all get-out to have nine buildings sitting empty. But it also makes marketing a whole lot easier. Now, we’re back down to have some fairly challenged product that requires additional efforts. Hopefully we can continue to build on that and not just tread water for a while until the next company goes out of business and then have to fill up that building again.”
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