Diaper plant expansion to create 150 jobs, save over 200

First Quality’s $200 million expansion at its Macon plant will do more than create 150 new jobs. It will save the more than 200 jobs already here.

The diaper manufacturer announced Friday that it plans to build a new, state-of-the-art facility on property at its existing plant on Avondale Mill Road. Local officials had been working to persuade the company to build here for almost a year, and Macon won out over another site in an undisclosed state.

“If we were not successful in this negotiation process, the plant (here) would have been shut down,” said Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

“That’s a big win,” he said. “The part that kind of kept me up at night was if we were not successful, you would have 222 or so people who would lose there jobs. That’s 222 families that would be affected.”

Construction on a new $35 million building will begin “almost immediately,” Bob Schiek, the company’s director of manufacturing said at a news conference Friday at Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

“You should see dirt moving in the next two weeks,” he said.

The expansion represents a $200 million investment over the next eight years, said Gov. Sonny Perdue. The company expects to start bringing in new, high-tech production machines early next year, and the new plant could be up and running by next spring.

The announcement represents a turnaround of sorts for the local plant, which had seen some layoffs over the past several years. Its production lines had become “outdated and outmoded,” Cherry said, and production was shifted to a new, more modern manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania.

“They had to adjust employment levels here to reflect product demand from this site,” said Cherry. “This new equipment will provide greater flexibility in what they can produce.”

First Quality Baby Products bought the Macon facility in April 2009 from Covidien, formerly Tyco Healthcare. Local officials had feared the plant might close then.

“We were in jeopardy of losing those jobs and having them move to another part of the country,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said. “The employees who were working there made their case: Why don’t you stay here?”

Schiek said the company’s “confidence of the pool of skilled labor” and the “pro-business environment in Georgia and especially in Macon and Bibb County” helped convince First Quality to stay. He also said the “favorable package of incentives” put together by state and local officials was “vital” to the decision,

The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Development Authority secured a $1.5 million OneGeorgia grant from the state to pay for grading at the site. The authority also got a $500,000 state grant to pay for a new public road and utilities, and it has committed $100,000 to help build a fire-protection water tank on the site.

The Bibb County Commission and Bibb County Board of Education have agreed to a reduction in ad valorem taxes for 15 years.

“Georgia didn’t really start the incentives auction, but we’ve learned we got (to do that) to compete,” Perdue said.

The expansion had been dubbed “Project Q” during negotiations with the company. During public discussions, local officials had said the project would create 350 jobs, but that number was meant to reflect both the jobs created and saved, said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission.

Cliffard Whitby, the industrial authority’s chairman, said landing the expansion was the result of a joint effort by state and local officials, a number of whom could not be told details of the project.

“Sometimes it’s very difficult when you can’t talk about potential projects that would benefit the community,” Whitby said. “But days like this make what we do worth it.”

He recalled that as soon as he became authority chairman, Cherry approached him about trying to keep the First Quality plant here.

“I mean he was like a bulldog when they lock in,” Whitby said. “He wouldn’t let go of this. And there were some tough times. There were some challenges. But we made it.”

County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, who toured the Pennsylvania plant last year with Reichert, the governor and local economic development team members, praised the “team effort” by the city and county.

“We work together in spite of what you sometimes read,” Hart said. “This is an example of what happens when we work together.”

Schiek, the First Quality spokesman, said the new jobs will be “high-tech.” He declined to say how much they would pay, except that the salaries would vary by “skill level and position.” The open positions will be posted online, he said.

Meanwhile, the construction will provide an “immediate hit” of jobs, Perdue said.

“You build a $200 million facility, you’re going to have a lot of activity, a lot of jobs, a lot of economic turn here.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.