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Possible Beaver County Shell plant sparks wave of enthusiasm

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 8:06 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
The Horsehead Corp. zinc smelter, spanning Center and Potter townships in Beaver County, could be replaced by a petrochemical plant from the chemical arm of Royal Dutch Shell.

Condos and hotels, top-class office space and regional headquarters buildings — it's the dream scenario some envision for Beaver County that depends on one decision.

Global oil giant Shell is getting closer to deciding whether to commit to building a petrochemical plant there, a project so big that businesses have been jockeying for months on potential deals for land nearby, government and real estate officials said.

If Shell commits, it could spark other contract signings for spin-off plants, hotels, homes, restaurants and offices, officials said.

“We're just going to see an influx of business into the area,” said R.T. Walker, a real estate consultant trying to coordinate deals in Beaver County for Beynon & Company Inc., based Downtown. “The excitement level: They're jumping out of their skin there. It's waiting for Christmas morning. It's waiting for presents.”

Any project is a long way away.

Workers visited the site several times to do environmental testing, but the chemical arm of Royal Dutch Shell plc can't move on any large-scale demolition until the current owner, zinc company Horsehead Corp., moves out. Horsehead's deadline is April 2014.

Even if Shell activates its land deal, environmental permitting could take years, experts have said.

Construction would take several years, Shell spokeswoman Kimberly Windon said.

It could be a five-year project, lasting until 2020, according to Beaver County Commissioner Joe Spanik.

“Things are already happening as if it were going to go through, but it's a bit speculative right now,” said Gene Pash, president of Value Ambridge Properties Inc., which owns Ambridge Regional Distribution & Manufacturing Center. His company priced an expansion at $3 million to $4 million for buildings and rail links.

Shell said in June 2011 that it might build a petrochemical plant in the Appalachian basin to convert ethane from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations into the building blocks for plastic products. Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia offered millions in tax breaks. Shell in March announced its Beaver County deal.

The plant would encourage gas drilling to feed it and spin-off companies to develop products from its plastic, possibly leading to 2,000 to 8,000 jobs in addition to its 400 permanent workers, according to industry and state estimates.

Other business development would come in waves, Pash said.

There is a shortage of everything from homes for professionals to lunch spots to office space, Walker said.

“Office space is in dire need, even just on (the) main street in Beaver,” Walker said.

Members of the Beaver County Building Trades Council met with Shell officials to try to plan appropriate training sessions.

“We need this boost in the county, not only for construction workers, but those types of jobs that will come with it,” said Larry Nelson, business representative for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 712 in Vanport.

Yet people need to temper their optimism, said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Even if the new plant encourages new manufacturing to come into the region, it can't bring back more than a fraction of the jobs that once were located here,” Briem said.

It may not overcome the loss of Horsehead in the intermediate term, Briem added. Horsehead has 500 hourly workers and 200 to 300 salaried employees, union leaders have said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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