Last Thursday, SEDA-COG hosted the first public meeting to discuss two projects which will protect major employers in the Town of Bloomsburg. When completed, the Autoneum North America and Windsor Foods facilities will have flood protection systems. Funding for the projects includes $15 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and $11.8 million from the PA Commonwealth Financing Authority. The companies are providing the remaining $3.2 million and are responsible for any cost overruns as well as for ongoing maintenance of their flood protection systems.
SEDA-COG will be coordinating the projects on behalf of the Columbia County Commissioners. The next step in the process is to select an engineering firm to design and coordinate construction of the flood protection systems. That selection process is expected to be completed by June. The design and permitting phase is expected to take a year, followed by two years of construction.
A logical question asked by a number of people in attendance at last week’s meeting was how much these structures might raise water levels in adjacent areas during future flooding. Engineering work to be completed will provide that data. SEDA-COG’s Bill Seigel stressed that, if there were to be any significant impact, it would have to be mitigated before construction could proceed. As additional data becomes available, subsequent meetings will be held to keep the public informed. A website has also been developed to provide project updates at: www.sedacog.org/site/BFPP.aspx.
The following comments were offered by Chamber President Fred Gaffney at the meeting.
The notification by the Army Corps of Engineers last June informing that the long-anticipated flood control project for the west end of Bloomsburg was no longer viable was demoralizing to say the least. For decades, the Town and County had been working towards this project and hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses were counting on it to protect their properties and left everyone asking the question, “What’s next?”.
For the two largest employers in this area, the choices were pretty straight forward, develop protection for their Bloomsburg facilities, or move those operations, and the jobs, to other facilities over time. In the flooding of 2011, direct losses to the two Bloomsburg operations were a combined 67 million dollars. As Autoneum provides flooring to a number of major automobile manufacturers, their shutdown had a significant ripple effect across the North American automotive industry. This followed flooding in 2006 and other losses every time the companies have to stop production to prepare for even the risk of flooding.
As these businesses compete in national and global markets, ongoing risk in Bloomsburg would not be an option. Locally, we knew that we had to move quickly to find solutions to keep these businesses, and the jobs they provide, here. If not, they would be lost not only to our area, but to Pennsylvania, and possibly the United States. This risk is recognized by the Commonwealth and Federal governments through their financial support of these projects.
It is important to illustrate how valuable these two businesses are to our local economy. Autoneum is one of the largest private employers in Columbia County with 730 employees. According to the latest information from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, it is the largest private employer in the county, and second largest overall after Bloomsburg University. Combined, Autoneum and Windsor Foods employ about 880 people, with total payroll of 40 million dollars. More than half of those employees live in Columbia County and about 66% live in Columbia and Montour counties. These jobs have a multiplier effect on our area. For every three new jobs created at Autoneum, one job is created in the community. At Windsor Foods, a new job is created in the community for every two new jobs at the facility. Just as importantly, the opposite is true if those jobs go away.
Whether or not you or an immediate family member works at one of these two businesses, they benefit every taxpayer in Bloomsburg and Columbia County. The employees pay over 45 thousand dollars a year to the Town through the Municipal Services Tax, and the two businesses pay approximately 260 thousand dollars a year combined in property taxes. This does not take into account the local products and services purchased annually by the businesses. Autoneum alone paid over $4.5 million dollars last year just on utilities.
Consider also the support of community organizations and efforts. Autoneum and its employees contributed over 32 thousand dollars to last year’s United Way campaign.
And these companies are not average employers. The Autoneum facility has been in Bloomsburg for generations and won numerous automotive awards and manufacturing trophies over the years. Windsor Foods sells to Nestles, Stouffers, Olive Garden, Applebees and Perkins. Their operations bring national recognition to our area.
Manufacturing provides more jobs in Columbia County than any other industry by a large margin over retail trade and health care. This is even after the loss of 330 jobs in October, 2011 with the closing of R.R. Donnelley and the closing of Bloomsburg Mills in 2009 which resulted in 134 jobs lost. Replacing these higher quality jobs is a struggle. The largest new industry to come to Columbia County in a decade is the Dollar Tree Distribution Center in Briar Creek Township, which currently employs about 350 people. The Chamber and other economic development groups in the County are constantly working to bring new jobs to our area, but we face competition from not only neighboring counties, but neighboring states.
Thirty million dollars for these two projects is a lot of money, but, this investment will pay off in just one flood. While we all hope that is a long way off, we know it’s only a matter of time.
These two businesses have continually invested in their Bloomsburg facilities. Autoneum has invested over 10 million in just the last three years as their employment has rebounded from the economic downturn in 2009. Windsor Foods capital expenditures in 2011 exceeded 3.1 million. In 2011, these two businesses made a commitment to rebuild in our community after the flooding. It is important that the community remain committed to these companies as well in supporting these projects.