Chester Co. loses bid for rail-car plant, 1,800 jobs

CHESTER -- A Canadian rail-car maker that announced plans last week to build a $350 million facility with 1,800 jobs in Alabama passed on Chester County after local residents complained about another industry, county officials said.

Neither county officials nor the Ontario-based company, National Steel Car, have said the opposition to a CSX rail and truck terminal was the reason the manufacturer didn't choose Chester.

But Karlisa Parker, Chester County's economic development director, said negotiations with the company suddenly died after winter protests by residents worried about potential pollution and traffic from a CSX facility in their neighborhood.

Unlike CSX, Parker said National Steel Car wasn't ready to disclose its interest in the county at that time.

"Chester County lost 350 million dollars in investment and 1,800 jobs," Parker said. "And there may have been other reasons, but we were never informed that there were other reasons that ... we didn't get the final shot at them."

A company spokesman could not comment Monday afternoon on what factors led the company to eliminate Chester, but he said a variety of sites were considered before the decision was made.

The company's chairman and CEO, Gregory Aziz, was quoted in the Florence (Ala.) Times Daily as saying that 150 sites initially were considered. Aziz said he visited sites in 10 states, according to the report.

'Serious contender'

Parker said the county knew it was a "serious contender" for the manufacturing site when Aziz came to visit, one of three trips she said the company made to Chester on corporate jets.

Because of the confidentiality of industry recruitment negotiations, Parker said she couldn't name the company last winter. But after the announcement in Alabama, she confirmed that the company had looked at the county.

At least, until the CSX battle.

After learning that CSX was considering building a truck and rail terminal in the county late last year, some residents vehemently opposed the rezoning of the land the railroad company was eyeing. The land in question is a 308-acre tract on S.C. 9 near Cedarhurst Road.

Despite pleas from county officials that CSX had nothing to do with the land use change, the protests continued. More than 100 people showed up at a Dec. 13 special meeting where leaders delayed the final vote on the rezoning.

CSX later had looked away from Chester and the landowner, Springland Associates, pulled the rezoning request.

But unbeknownst to residents, CSX was not the only company interested in the land, Parker said. National Steel Car also was seriously considering the site for a manufacturing center, she said, and that company was the reason for the rezoning request, not CSX.

"These were two projects trying to get the same property," she said. "One had nothing to do with the other."

Parker said two sites National Steel Car liked were the S.C. 9 industrial complex piece and the Spingland property. The former site had the appropriate zoning for building rail cars, but the latter did not.

"It was a big project for the state," she said. "And the fact that we got a shot at it was pretty awesome."

County Councilman Alex Oliphant didn't know about the Ontario project then, but knew CSX didn't need a zoning change.

"I know enough about the big picture of things that sometimes what appears to be is not," he said. Oliphant also said such a manufacturing facility would have helped the county's economy.

"That would have been one of the first big steps towards tax reduction," he said, adding that the company also would have brought needed jobs.

Although he wouldn't go so far as to say that the CSX fight pushed out National Steel Car, he, like Parker, said the struggle over CSX didn't help.

"Those big industries," he said, "they're looking for a reason, not to stay, but a reason to drop you off of that list."