BELPRE - Wednesday's grand opening of Kraton Performance Polymers' Innovation Center at its Belpre site meant more to many of those present than the $40 million investment or the dozen new jobs it created.
"It's not just an investment; it's a commitment," Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz said. "It's remarkable for us. When you spend that much money, I feel, in my heart, this company's here to stay."
The Innovation Center is where new polymer products developed at Kraton labs in Amsterdam, Shanghai and Houston will be manufactured in amounts ranging from 25 kilograms to 50 metric tons depending on the needs of the clients who will test them out in their products, said Scott Oran, Belpre site manager for Kraton.
EVAN BEVINS Special to the Times
From left, Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen Waller, Kraton Performance Polymers President and CEO Kevin Fogarty and Southeastern Ohio Port Authority Chairman Tom Webster talk under a tent at Kraton in Belpre Wednesday following a ceremony marking the opening of the company’s $40 million Innovation Center.
If the new products are successful and demand increases, production can move over to the main plant.
The Innovation Center keeps test runs from interrupting other production at the company's commercial manufacturing plants, according to a release from Kraton. The facility is the first of its kind in the industry and is expected to give the company a competitive advantage, said Kevin Fogarty, president and CEO of Kraton.
"That whole development process now is much more cost-effective," he said.
Lothar Freund, vice president, technology, for Kraton, said the discussion on where to locate the facility wasn't a lengthy one. Belpre was chosen for its manufacturing infrastructure and talented workforce.
"We know the people understand our process here," Fogarty said. "Every project we've given in Belpre, they have stood up and said, 'We want the project, we'll deliver on time and safely and on budget.'"
In the last five years, staffing at the Belpre facility has increased almost 20 percent, according to a release from Kraton. More than 400 people are employed there, plus a couple hundred contractors, Oran said.
The Innovation Center adds 12 jobs initially. It's currently operating four days a week, Oran said, but more jobs could be added as activity increases.
Fogarty described Belpre as Kraton's "flagship manufacturing facility" and said he knows the company has the community's support.
"We want you to know that we take that relationship very seriously, and we treasure it," he said.
Karen Waller, executive director of the Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce, called Wednesday "a historic day for the city and the area."
"They (Kraton) believe in this area; they believe in the Mid-Ohio Valley," she said.
Kraton's growth and continued presence in the area benefit businesses beyond the company itself, Waller said.
"There are small businesses that only can prosper because of the choices Kraton makes to invest in this community," she said.
Members of Kraton's leadership team from around the world attended Wednesday's ceremony, as did some retirees from the company. Elected officials joining Lorentz there included state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany; state Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville; and Washington County Commissioners Ron Feathers, Tim Irvine and David White.
Gentile said it isn't just Kraton that deserves the thanks for the Innovation Center's arrival in Belpre.
"We're grateful to Kraton, but also recognize how important the workforce" and the community were in making it happen, he said.
"I think it speaks a lot of Washington County that an international company is willing to invest $40 million," he said.
Fogarty noted the company is already in the midst of another $50 million-plus project at the Belpre site, converting the plant's boiler system from coal to natural gas.
"We finish one project, we celebrate, and we go on to the next one," he said.