About five years ago, when I was still commuting from Kentucky to Charleston every day, I ran into a local politician at the grocery store near my house. He was with the Greenup County Commission, one of the first government agencies I covered when I was cutting my teeth as a young reporter.
We chatted briefly about everyday things, then I turned to leave the store. He made a sort of political speech at the time, which I found rather endearing in a fun way. It was just a habit.
“They say it’s not coming, but it’s coming,” he said. “He is.”
“It was” Braidy Industries, the company that would save the region with a $1.5 billion aluminum alloy plant in Greenup County and offices in neighboring Boyd County – Ashland, more precisely.
Good, well-paying jobs were on the way for blue-collar workers. Obviously, corporate jobs would also pay well. This would create another economic development and provide a much-needed boost to existing small businesses. This would restore the Ashland region as a place where almost everyone enjoyed a decent standard of living.
I was not aware that there had been any doubt about the project. I knew there was some skepticism about the then-Gov. Matt Bevin got $15 million from the state to start the project, but tax breaks, grants and even land deals with friends in the name of attracting business were happening all the time.
Ashland and much of the surrounding region, including the contiguous towns of Russell and Flatwoods, are not rural Appalachia. Much like the greater Charleston area, these are Rust Belt towns and bedroom communities. Of course, you don’t have to travel far to find the country, but there isn’t much of that flavor in the cities themselves.
When I was growing up in Russell, Armco Steel had two furnaces that worked day and night, making products for the automotive industry. Ashland Inc., a Fortune 500 company, was headquartered two miles from my house and operated a refinery in Boyd County, just across the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Dozens of people worked in the rail yards in Russell and in the railcar repair shops a little further down US 23 in Raceland.
It was a crucible. You had lifelong blue-collar workers who worked at Armco or in the rail yards and people from all over the country – even around the world – who worked as engineers, corporate lawyers and executives at Ashland Inc. Doctors from all regions around the world set up offices at Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital, near Ashland Inc.’s corporate headquarters. King’s Daughters Medical Center in downtown Ashland was expanding. The area wasn’t a bustling metropolis, but it certainly wasn’t the sticks.
In fact, I remember being a little annoyed every time the Judds, Ashland natives, were on national TV and talking about coming from the middle of nowhere and having to make their own soap or live in a house without electricity. Not only did I hate these stereotypes, but the difficulties discussed were often very liberal with the truth.
Billy Ray Cyrus, a native of Flatwoods and a graduate of Russell High School, had a big breakthrough when I was in second grade, wandering the same halls as him. The teachers always turned on the television if he was being interviewed. Cyrus would sometimes offer a similar aw-shucks-country-boy schtick, which was hilarious. His father was head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO and a former state senator.
I understood why Cyrus and the Judds felt like they needed to represent humble origins, but I thought it made their hometowns full of people so proud of them.
Those stories would sell better today. Ashland Inc. merged with Marathon and shipped much of its jobs to Findlay, Ohio while moving its headquarters to Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, in the late 1990s. The refinery, now adorned with a Marathon logo, is still in operation. It’s one of the few things that reminds us that Ashland Inc. has always been around.
Prior to this, Armco was taken over by AK Steel and many of my friends’ relatives continually worried about reduced hours, holidays and early retirements with reduced pensions.
When I returned to the area as a reporter, Ashland Inc.’s headquarters had been turned into a call center for Applied Card Systems, a notorious company owned by the same person who owned Cross Country Bank. The bank issued credit cards to people who had nothing to do, and then the sister company ruthlessly pressured them to collect the debts. There were also call centers in West Virginia filling structures that once served a bigger purpose, like the Arch Coal building in Huntington.
Applied Card was hardly an equal replacement economically or spiritually for Ashland Inc. The company and its sister bank collapsed after several states (including West Virginia) filed civil lawsuits alleging unfair business practices and possibly be illegal. The business still exists in a scaled down form, but Box Jobs in Russell is almost 20 years old. Ashland Inc. buildings for a time housed extensive services for Notre-Dame de Bellefonte, and now do the same for King’s Daughters.
Layoffs in rail yards were commonplace. Stoppages eventually followed.
At AK Steel, a blast furnace was shut down. The remaining oven became cold around 2010. It was never reopened. The site was demolished earlier this year.
While all of this was happening, the region’s main industry became health care. Although this provides plenty of well-paying jobs, it is not a good sign for the local economy. This indicates that the main consumer base is, on average, an elderly and unhealthy population.
As King’s Daughters grew, Our Lady of Bellefonte was always on the verge of closing. It finally happened two years ago.
Maybe something like Braidy could have saved him, if it had ever been real.
The announcement of Braidy Industries’ arrival was met with unreal fanfare in the Ashland area. The company immediately established a presence in the community. There were tours, public meetings, office openings and other events. Community and technical colleges started programs to train the workers the plant would need.
In 2018, the company inaugurated EastPark. The industrial park off Interstate 64 is unique, including parts of Boyd, Greenup, and Carter counties within its boundaries. It was a sort of “build it and they will come” project that had modest success, but fell short of expectations. One of its major tenants is an AT&T customer service call center.
Braidy would change all that too.
The only problem was that, among all the visits, public meetings, discussions, pledges and worker training, Braidy never built anything. The ceremonial revolutionary shovels were the only elements to move the earth on the site.
Bevin and others started saying more money was needed. I saw a major red flag when news broke that the governor had brought in Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska as a $200 million investor. Deripaska is co-owner of the Russian company United Co. Rusal. He is also a Kremlin stooge with close ties to Vladimir Putin and was under US sanctions. On top of that, Deripaska was one of the investors in the failed 2017 Fyre Festival, a rip-off and disaster so colossal that there are – in addition to various lawsuits and criminal charges – two documentaries about it.
Every time someone like Deripaska throws money you have to wonder if it’s just for fun, some are playing to gain influence in the United States or a game around financial laws which could, in speculative worst-case scenario, include cleaning up dirty money. . Not good.
At the start of 2020, Braidy Industries said it needed at least an additional $500 million from investors — or the Kentucky government, if it wanted to pump in more money several percentage points above. above its initial investment – to make the factory a reality.
As things began to fall apart, Braidy founder Craig Bouchard was forced out of his own company and eventually paid $6 million to leave. The company adopted a new name, Unity Aluminum, and talked about moving forward under new management. As recently as August 2020, company officials said funding for the project was close to being secured. It was just another broken promise to throw on the job.
The final rattle sounded late last month, when Bevin’s successor, Governor Andy Beshear, announced that the state had secured the return of Unity Aluminum’s $15 million seed money.
It doesn’t come. He would probably never come. I don’t even know what it was, other than some kind of jerk. The search for half a billion dollars nearly three years after the project was announced suggests it was never close to becoming a reality.
Aluminum unit said he will build the plant, now for more than $2 billion, in a joint venture with Steel Dynamics of Indiana. It won’t be in Kentucky. Any community vying for the project should be extremely careful.
“Braidy is going to be the worst, sleaziest economic development deal in Kentucky history,” Beshear said at a press conference in July.
It’s hard to blame Appalachia, Kentucky, West Virginia and beyond for being skeptical every time a government official or corporate mogul makes a splashy announcement about a project that will save the region.
As my dad used to say about my promises of better math, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”