Promise of Chester ethanol plant hinges on $230M

CHESTER -- East Coast Ethanol promises a $230 million plant in Chester County, at least 43 jobs and $100 million each year pumping into the local economy.

All the Columbia-based company needs is $230 million.

With a sluggish economy and tight credit market, company officials know that's a steep order.

"We had no idea we were going to hit the cross hairs -- the cross hairs -- of raising money like we have," said John Long, ECE's chief financial officer and manager of the Chester County project. "But like everybody else, we're going to hunker down. We're going to deal with it."

During a Tuesday news conference at the Chester County War Memorial Building, Long said ECE has about a year to find the money for the project, although the company hopes to begin building the plant in the spring.

"We've got a serious uphill challenge ahead of us," he said.

The company plans to build ethanol plants in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and on a 319-acre site on Beltline Road, southwest of Chester. Each plant is expected to annually produce 110 million gallons of ethanol, a fuel alternative that can be made from corn, wood chips and other renewable products.

If all four plants are built, the company claims it would be the sixth largest ethanol producer in the country and the largest southeastern supplier.

The plant would operate like this: Train cars of midwestern corn would roll into the plant two to three times each week. On work days, a truck would leave the plant about every 15 minutes. Those trucks would carry most of the ethanol to regional terminals in places like Spartanburg and Charlotte.

They'd also haul an ethanol byproduct called dried distillers grains, a high-protein livestock feed.

Once the company breaks ground, construction is expected to take about 18 to 22 months.

While 43 is the minimum number of workers the plant would hire, Long said the site could eventually employ as many as 70 people. Those jobs pay about $40,000 annually and workers would be trained by Fagen, the firm building the plant for ECE.

Long also said the plant would generate some 700 "spinoff jobs," such as the need for truckers to haul away the ethanol.

"It's going to be great for our economy here in Chester," said County Councilman Joe Branham, whose district includes part of the plant site. "The spinoff of that is where Chester's going to benefit. ... That's what Chester County desperately needs."

Long said ECE chose Chester because of the county's access to natural gas and rail lines, its proximity to fuel terminals and the area's livestock, which provide the market for the distillers grain.

ECE began as four groups pursuing separate ethanol projects. The groups merged last year, and they now have a combined 120 investors. Those people raised $9.8 million in "seed money," the cash needed to get the business off the ground.

But the company needs $871 million to build the four plants, and while ambition is great, so is the challenge.

"Right now, just like it is for everybody else in the economy, the ethanol industry is feeling the strain of the volatility in the financial markets," said Chad Hart, an assistant professor of economics and a grain markets specialist at Iowa State University. "You have fairly small margins within the industry itself. You have declining fuel usage here in the U.S. And you have concerns about the economic prospects, not only here, but worldwide."

Tough times aside, Hart said the southeast is prized territory for ethanol manufacturers.

"Ethanol usage has been rather small in the southeast," he said. "It represents a large market for the industry to sort of crack into."

That's what ECE hopes to do. Although the company is looking for local investors, it's also relying international support.

"We know it's going to be more difficult right now," Long said. "We also know that people are looking. They're still looking for a good investment."