CHESTER -- A Canadian rail car manufacturer opted not to build a $350-million plant in Chester County because of concerns about the site it wanted, not because of residents' protests toward another industry, a consultant for the company said this week.
Ontario-based National Steel Car announced two weeks ago that it would build a plant in Alabama with 1,800 jobs. Four sites were finalists for the project, including properties in Mississippi, Georgia and Chester County, said Ann Woessner of The Staubach Company, the Dallas-based consultant used by National Steel Car during its search for a site.
Since The Herald reported last week that the company passed on Chester County, many residents and local officials have wondered why.
Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker said last week that negotiations with National Steel Car died suddenly after winter protests by residents opposed to CSX building a truck and rail terminal in their community.
Parker and County Councilman Alex Oliphant wouldn't say the protesters cost the county the rail car deal, but said they certainly didn't help the recruitment process.
Residents denied they had anything to do with the company looking elsewhere and said statements by Parker and Oliphant implied they did.
National Steel Car CEO Gregory Aziz referred questions to Woessner, who said the company eliminated Chester for three reasons:
• Developing the site would cost an extra $10 million to $15 million because of geographic issues with the land.
• Clearing trees and preparing the land for construction would delay the project four to six months.
• Opening near a "megasite" in Richburg could have posed problems in the future. If an automotive plant develops on the 1,151-acre megasite, it may siphon employees from the local work force.
The CSX controversy ignited late last year when residents learned the railroad company was considering building a truck and rail terminal in their farming community.
Some residents vehemently opposed a rezoning of the land, 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, some holding picket signs, showed up at a Dec. 13 special meeting where leaders delayed the final vote on the rezoning.
CSX later looked away from Chester and the landowner, Springland Associates, pulled the rezoning request. Unbeknownst to residents, both CSX and National Steel Car were interested in the same property, Parker said.
Although the company noticed the protesters, Woessner said they were not a reason why the company didn't choose Chester. She acknowledged, however, that the protests did "raise a couple eyebrows."
"Our reception was very warm," she said. "So, I'm not going to tell you ... that was a factor."
Woessner said hundreds of communities were scouted for the project and that Chester was in the running until recently. To make the final four, "you have to do something really well," she said.
"It's never a waste of time to be in a competition like that," she said. "Because we have tons of clients. And we do a lot of work in the industrial and manufacturing area. And so now we know about that site. ... I'm sure you'll see us again."
Some residents who opposed CSX were thankful this week. They are glad that National Steel Car verified its decision had nothing to do with the CSX protests.
"As we have said numerous times in the press and to the Chester County Council, we are pro-jobs and pro-development for Chester County," Gloria Kellerhals of Rodman said in a statement.
Despite claims that he blamed CSX opponents for the botching the rail car deal, Oliphant maintained he only said the protesters didn't help recruitment process, not ruin it.
"Never said that," he said. "People can read into it whatever they want."
Parker could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Oliphant said being a finalist in such a competitive race bodes well for future prospects.
"That means that we're doing something right," he said. "The factors of why they didn't come here ... basically, it's not something that the county did wrong."