A sad (and hopeful) day for South Charleston

By The West Virginia Record | Aug 23, 2007


I remember the first time I rolled into South Charleston, West Virginia, as a junior chemical engineering student from Penn State.

I was wowed by the South Charleston Plant of Union Carbide Corporation. I was also astonished that a major chemical corporation (one of the biggies) had their main research and development operation right here in this small town in West Virginia.

It was endearing and impressive.

And, now, with the passing of a large chunk of that one Union Carbide Technical Center to West Virginia University, that era comes to an end.

Don't get me wrong, I normally am one to embrace change in my political, professional, and personal lives.

But ... but ...

There is something difficult about letting go of what brought me to West Virginia.

Maybe its not even "letting go," its more of an "I never thought I'd see this day come."

The chemical industry obviously has gone through seismic changes in the past 20 years. But, when I came to West Virginia in 1990, I would not have imagined a scenario where the TECH CENTER would be no more.

Yes, manufacturing was dwindling and that writing was on the wall well before I came in 1990. I always assumed that the South Charleston Plant where I worked and the Institute plant would eventually close their doors because of a lack of investment and simply being cheaper to do business on the Gulf Coast and overseas.

But ... but ...

I never imagined that the Technical Center would close. Never.

With Union Carbide, the Technical Center was their lifeblood. It serviced plants throughout the world and served as the research hub for all of Union Carbide. There was a small research entity in Bound Brook, N.J., but RESEARCH was the be-all, end-all in South Charleston.

Because of that, there was some security for South Charleston. After all, despite the precipitous drop in employment at the plants, the Technical Center was actually in growth mode. So, there was comfort that yes, one day these plants would shutter, but the Technical Center would live on.

But, that changed in 2001 when Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide.

Again, though, there was hope.

Dow immediately invested in the South Charleston plant with a bright, shiny new maintenance building to the tune of about $6 million and offered much hope that hey, maybe these plants would have some new life pumped into them.

Look, my history here is limited to 17 years, which seems like an absurdly long time to me, but I can't imagine the sorrow being felt by those old Carbiders who had 40 or 50 or 60 years of memories that are ended.

So, in many ways, it's a sorrowful day for me.

But, there aren't negative feelings.

Dow is doing what it must to survive. Looking back now, I think there was a lot of false hope provided when Dow came on board here. But, Union Carbide was going to be purchased. And, whoever purchased it, was going to dismantle it here in the valley.

What's left is what's strong.

The South Charleston plant continues to hold on to a few of the stronger performing entities.

As does Institute.

And, they will stay as long as they continue producing. But, the job losses, even from 2001 are jaw-dropping.

The leadership at Dow has done an admirable job trying to keep what they could here. But, people like Allan Fowler (Dow's leader in the Valley) compete in a true global marketplace where decisions are made on a worldwide basis.

He has to compete with both arms tied behind his back… hugely expensive natural gas prices, hugely expensive labor costs, hugely expensive and aging capital requirements, and quite simply, what will survive is what can compete.

If it can't compete, it's gone. And as we have seen, large swaths of what once was known as the 'Chemical Valley' has not been able to compete.

So, we move on. And, we hope.

We hope that WVU, using this gift as a research center is able to turn around this colossal loss to South Charleston and help turn the research park into just that… a true RESEARCH park in the vein of North Carolina's Triangle Park.

And, so much positive work is already being done with MATRIC and other entities in trying to bring the vast knowledge base in this valley to bear into the future.

But, at least for today, allow me a little sadness.

And, tomorrow, hopefully, we'll see a new day for the Union Carbide Technical Cent ... errr ... the WVU Research Park.

Sprouse is a former Minority Leader of the West Virginia Senate. He has served in the Legislature since 1995 and resides in Charleston. He graduted from Penn State University with a Chemical Engineering degree and currently owns and operates several fitness centers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

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