WURTLAND, Ky. (AP) — An aluminum company says it will build a $1.3 billion plant in the heart of Appalachia, promising to hire 550 people and pay them nearly twice the average household income of an area devastated by the loss of coal and manufacturing jobs.
Braidy Industries Inc. says the planned 2.5 million-square-foot facility in South Shore, not far from where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia meet on the Ohio River, will produce 370,000 tons of aluminum for the automotive and aerospace industries. In three years, CEO Craig Bouchard said 20 percent of cars on the road would have sheet aluminum from the facility in Greenup County.
In the past decade, 8,000 coal jobs have disappeared from eastern Kentucky. In nearby Ashland, more than 600 people lost their jobs last year when AK Steel idled its plant on the Ohio River. The mountainous region's labor force has dropped by 20 percent in the past decade as people have fled to find work.
But Wednesday, as a pianist softly played the theme from "The Sound of Music" declaring "the hills are alive," Bouchard said he believes the bad times are over.
"I've had a bunch of successful companies. That's not what I'm after anymore. I want to make a difference," he said.
Braidy is in line to receive up to $25 million in incentives from the state. Wednesday, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority gave preliminary approval to up $10 million in tax incentives, which the company would get only if it meets investment and job targets over the next 15 years.
The company could get another $15 million from the state legislature. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin asked state lawmakers for the money last month. Lawmakers did not flinch, unanimously approving the money on the final day of the legislative session despite not knowing how it would be spent. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said he did not know about the project's details until Tuesday.
Bouchard said the company considered 24 locations in two states before Kentucky earned a "come from behind win," because it was not on the list until the first week of January.
That's when the Republican-controlled legislature banned companies from deducting mandatory union dues from employee paychecks. Similar "right-to-work" laws in all southern states have become a major partisan divide between Republicans, who say they create jobs, and Democrats, who say they weaken labor unions, leading to lower wages and unsafe working conditions.
Democratic state Rep. Kevin Sinnette, who voted against the right-to-work legislation, said companies like Braidy Industries are attracted to Kentucky anyway because it has an abundance of skilled workers who need jobs.
But Bouchard said the company would not have considered Kentucky unless it passed the law. He said the company would pay its workers average annual salaries of $70,000 a year while providing them with a day care facility and fitness centers.
"They are going to have their lunches every day for $1, forever, and it's going to be a place you want to go to work," Bouchard said. "We don't need anyone else telling us how to build that business."
State officials have announced other major capital investment projects in the past three months, including Amazon's pledge to hire 2,700 people to staff the online retailer's worldwide cargo air hub near Cincinnati and Toyota's additional investment of $1.33 billion in a central Kentucky plant that makes its flagship Camry sedans.
Bevin said Braidy Industries' announcement in eastern Kentucky tops them all.
"This may truly be the most singularly transformative economic development decision that has ever been made in the commonwealth of Kentucky," he said.