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Muncie Star Press OpEd: Gone despite the wind: economic development bust (Part 2 of 3) March 28, 2012

Posted by Laura Arnold in Uncategorized.
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Part 2 of 3

http://www.thestarpress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012203250318

Written by Larry Riley.

Larry Riley teaches English as Ball State University. Email him at lriley@bsu.edu.

So long as the Earth is turning, wind blows across the planet’s surface, providing a fount of energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity. The best national places to tap because of wind speed and constancy are well known:

West Wyoming, southwest Montana, Idaho, northeast Utah, western Colorado.

All places really far away from high voltage transmission lines the type of which are needed to transport power from these locales remote from much of the nation’s civilization.

I thought that the Obama administration’s 2009-2010 stimulus packages included planning and even construction to connect lots of these places to the nation’s electric grid and promote renewable wind energy.

If that ever was the intent, the endeavor dissipated, like so much stimulus funding seemed to do in the end.

Thus the once promising Brevini Wind manufacturing and assembly operation, so embraced locally in October of 2008, portent of a halcyon future, saw a potential domestic market, racked by the Great Recession, further dry up.

What was once so promising — 455 high-paying jobs, a $21 million payroll — now is a struggle to retain the workforce of 60.

Delaware County government and Brevini Wind last week changed the 2008 agreement to acknowledge reality, and what yet may develop remains encouraging.

Brevini is to have at least 200 full-time workers, with payroll of $9.7 million, perhaps as early as next spring. The date will depend on how long Delaware County takes to get a rail spur constructed into Park One industrial campus along I-69 and Ind. 332.

That project, once bid out for construction only to go back almost to square 1 thanks to an incredibly malingering federal bureaucracy, might get to construction this summer.

Within another two years, Brevini is to employ at least 410 at an annual payroll of $18.6 million.

The new agreements have teeth missing in the original: Failure to meet 90 percent of the employment goals brings about damages through direct payments to Delaware County.

For example, if Brevini only employs 150 people by next year’s deadline, the company would owe Delaware County $165,000 in penalties.

Brevini also is foregoing $5 million in revenues originally guaranteed, but will get $1.69 million from the county.

One has to have hope Brevini’s local future pans out in a big way.

We have no hope for recouping much, if any, of a $1.5 million county investment related to, but separate from, Brevini, that of the ill-fated company VAT and its owner Oliver Viehweider, a German national then working for Brevini.

Viehweider and local officials, notably Todd Donati, president of the Delaware County commissioners, and the county’s redevelopment commission, agreed to a novel model for job creation in the summer of 2009.

VAT would employ 105 people to manufacture and install solar- and wind-powered streetlights, and Delaware County would buy $645,000 worth of the first batch. Further, the county would fork over another $600,000 in a forgivable loan, provided that VAT invest $3.3 million in facilities at Park One near, or even adjoining, Brevini.

VAT was going to provide maintenance service on some of Brevini’s large wind turbines, including ones that should be dotting those rustic areas of the Far West.

In addition, VAT would sell the county a $255,000 vertical vane wind-powered generator to be erected along I-69 to serve as a symbol of local leadership in green technologies.

The source of the money, by the way, was the inexhaustible Morrison Road Tax Incremental Finance district, even though no investment was going into that district.

At the time, I wrote a column renaming the TIF the “Morrison Road Piggy Bank,” and recalled county officials had just finished shaking the bank upside down to spend $1.3 million for fire trucks for a desperate city fire department.

At least Muncie got the fire trucks and they work well. The VAT streetlight scheme was a mammoth bust. A handful of puny lights that look like they were made in China got erected in Park One and a few more in Canan Commons downtown.

No one ever saw hide nor hair of any quarter-million dollar landmark vertical vane. Half the $600,000 loan should have been repaid two years ago for failing to meet deadlines, but that didn’t happen.

No one knows how $1.4 million given to Viehweider  — paid despite his failure to meet required benchmarks — was spent, but clearly not in garnering any assets the county can go after.

Now a new agreement with Viehweider has the county standing to write off everything. Half of any Viehweider earnings the next three years in excess of $60,000 — surprise, he does not make that much annually right now — will be paid to the county, up to $300,000 total.

Viehweider also may sell off what are reportedly 13 streetlights still in storage (we paid $9,000 apiece for the ones we bought: don’t look for them to fetch such prices) and use some of that toward his $300,000 maximum county reimbursement.

At best, we’ll recoup 21 cents on the dollar.

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