Lafarge provides mixed blessing in Silver Grove

Lafarge provides mixed blessing in Silver Grove Railroad town’s turnaround came with a downside: dust In just five years of operation, the Lafarge Gypsum drywall plant has doubled the property value of Silver Grove, pumped $240,000 a year into the tiny city’s school system, enabled the city to hire a full-time police chief and covered the cost of repaving a downtown street. It has also raised the ire of people living nearby, who sued over dust emissions and, in some cases, accepted buyouts to move away. Lafarge in Silver Grove Impact of building the plant: $93 million, 957 construction jobs Tax credits from the state: $10 million over 10 years Other state incentives: Enterprise zone location Help from Campbell County: $8 million in bonds Jobs now at the plant: 150So has the $94 million plant been worth the trouble it’s caused? Leaders of this old railroad town of 1,200 people say yes, and they readily list why: Police Chief John Sayers was a part-time department of one through decades of service to his hometown. Since 2000, he’s been full-time. Third Street, the main drag that includes city hall and the city’s only school, has new sidewalks and fresh pavement. Silver Grove residents enjoy their smallest tax burden in years thanks to the elimination of car and pet registration tags several years ago. Taxes are rolling in. Payroll taxes alone from Lafarge workers pump $100,000 a year into Silver Grove’s general fund. The additional $240,000 in tax revenue for the schools brings the district’s general fund budget up to about $2 million. And in May, the city will begin collecting $43,250 a year in property taxes based on a rate of $1.73 per thousand dollars of assessed property value. But for residents who live nearest the plant, their town’s new prosperity contrasts with their personal headaches. Melissa Mills has thought about moving but doubts there’s a market for a home right across the street from a factory. “There have always been trains, but now at 3 a.m. you have horns blaring,” said Mills, who has lived in Silver Grove for 12 years. “You wash your car and 10 minutes later, you go out and there’s all these little balls of dust on your windshield.” The complaints about dust aren’t new. After a state investigation, the company paid a $250,000 fine last year and put new dust-abatement measures in place. Though some residents remain concerned, the plant has been able to proceed with an expansion. It opened with 100 employees, now has 150 and is expected to produce 800 million square feet of wallboard this year. “Production has been steadily increasing through process modifications and experience with people at the plant,” said Gary Molchan, Lafarge’s director of safety and environment. “As you get better, you get faster. We’re the largest producing wallboard plant on the Ohio River, and we believe that we’re at the lowest delivery cost to our customers.” In town, the Lafarge plant’s success is measured by other yardsticks, including its boost to tax receipts and any number of examples of goodwill. “Lafarge is a fantastic neighbor for the school district,” said Principal Patrick Tucker, who tells a story about Silver Grove High School’s science lab to explain why he feels that way. The lab was struggling to find a way to properly dispose of toxic chemicals. Lafarge sent over one of its environmental experts and picked up the $3,000 tab to safely remove the chemicals. In the three years he has worked at the school, Tucker said Lafarge has responded well to complaints. When residents complained about a gas smell coming from the plant, Lafarge eliminated the smell in two weeks. “They could probably say we’re the biggest company down here. You guys can sue us all you want, and we won’t fix anything,” he said. With just 306 students, Silver Grove is small school district. But in a town that’s lost population, school enrollment is at an all-time high with 20 more students this year. A $540,000 renovation of the high school was just completed, the elementary school will be fixed up next year and salaries are up for everyone from teachers to cafeteria workers. “People say a salary increase doesn’t help performance, but it doesn’t hurt performance,” Superintendent Bill Brown said, pointing out that better pay keeps teachers from leaving. The financial benefits from Lafarge extend beyond the school system. Extra tax revenue let the city eliminate its pet tax ($5 per dog and cat) and vehicle permit fee ($10 on time, and $15 for procrastinators). While those taxes were ended, property taxes have remained low because home values have been about steady, said Daniel Braun, Campbell County property valuation administrator. But the addition of Lafarge has doubled the value of the city’s tax rolls. The total assessed value of Silver Grove was $22.6 million in 1999. Today, it’s $50.7 million, thanks to the $25 million value of Lafarge. “Real estate-wise, it’s worth as much as the rest of the city,” Braun said. The economic losers are homeowners on Ky. 8, whose property values have dropped, Braun said. The complaints from a few residents, whether about dust or property values, haven’t dampened city officials’ enthusiasm for the project. “Did you see our $130,000 street here in front?” asked Kay Wright, city clerk and 40-year resident. “I can’t tell you how good Lafarge has been to us. They just never refuse us anything.” Besides that repaving of Third Street, she cited relatively small donations like a $3,200 toxic gas detector given to the fire department. She’s also dreaming big. Silver Grove lies low along the Ohio River and routinely floods. Wright is among those leading charge to build a $10 million floodwall. She’s been fighting for years to secure federal funding, and the extra money in the city’s tax coffers could help with a local match. Wright also wants to improve the lot of the town’s children. “My big dream is a youth center and a skate park for the children,” she said. Everyone was dreaming big five years ago when the Silver Grove won the competition to get Lafarge. Landing the plant meant new life for an economically stagnant former railroad town. C&O Railroad developed the city, building a railroad roundhouse and announcing plans for a town by 1911. Within a few years, the town flourished with 100 homes and more than 400 residents, almost all of whom were railroad workers or employees of businesses tied to the railroad. C&O began pulling out in the 1940s, and its successor, CSX, left for good in 1981, leaving no industry and few businesses for the town’s population. Silver Grove’s luck changed in 1998. Then-governor Paul Patton went to France with a delegation of Northern Kentucky businessmen for casting of Newport’s World Peace Bell. Lafarge was looking to build an American plant and had three sites in mind, all of them close to Cinergy’s Zimmer coal-fired power plant in Moscow, Ohio. The plant supplies the raw material for the drywall Lafarge produces — synthetic gypsum harvested from Zimmer’s smokestacks by coal scrubbers. Moscow and two Campbell County, Ky., towns were finalists: Mentor and Silver Grove. Over dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant in Paris’ Eiffel Tower on Dec. 14, 1998, the Kentucky delegation made their case for a Campbell County site, including a package of tax breaks and loans as incentives. They left the meeting feeling confident. Six weeks later, on Jan. 27, 1999, Lafarge Gypsum President Alain Bouruet-Aubertot joined Patton in a packed and energized gymnasium at Silver Grove High School to announce that Lafarge was coming to Silver Grove. Townspeople were full of optimism. Gene and Doris Biltz, Silver Grove residents for nearly 47 years, predicted the plant would mean a return to the good old days before 1981, when CSX closed the rail yard where Lafarge now sits. “I think we’ll pick up from where we left off when the railroad left town. It’s going to be great for the young people,” Gene Biltz said then. This week, Biltz said he was glad Lafarge came to town but disappointed in the company’s reaction to some of the problems that have come up. “It didn’t really turn ou
t as well as I would like. I assumed that they would work with the community. Then, with all that dust, you could see it as a cloud on a windy day move across the road,” Biltz said. “The trouble is also with running in with the tractor-trailers. They’ve lost three loads of drywall down by Moescher Ballpark on (Ky.) 8 this last year.” None of the accidents resulted in serious injuries or property damage but all caused traffic delays, according to firefighters. Though it’s taken longer than he hoped, Biltz said the plant has made important changes like starting construction on a new storage building that will contain gypsum. “I think we’re better off with them, as long as we can keep it on an even keel. So far, it appears they’re starting to take up their end,” Biltz said. As for an economic turnaround for Silver Grove, it’s not an accomplished fact. The latest census estimates still show declining population, though the losses are measured in double, not triple, digits. The town still lacks basic amenities like a grocery store, lunch spots and hardware stores. But an influx of new residents is bringing hope for new service business. On the south side of town, Providence Trace subdivision, being built by Crestview Hills-based Maplewood Homes, will have nearly 50 new homes in the $120,000 to $150,000 price range. And City Clerk Wright is happy to report that the last mobile home in the city will soon be replaced by two new permanent homes.

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