Editor’s note: In last week’s edition of Atmore News (May 23), we published a picture taken during Tiger-Sul’s re-opening. Due to deadline constraints, we were not able to publish an in-depth article about the facility’s re-opening and the importance of Tiger-Sul to Atmore and beyond. The article follows here.
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
When a July 2017 fire heavily damaged the production facility and destroyed most of the production equipment at Tiger-Sul’s Atmore fertilizer plant, many worried that company officials might throw in the towel and permanently close the local facility.
Instead, the Connecticut-based company — bolstered by a city-granted tax abatement — poured more than $3.5 million into rebuilding and rebooting the factory, including the purchase and installation of four high-capacity conveyer belts that are expected to eventually increase the plant’s productivity by “nearly 150 percent.”
Don Cherry, president and CEO of the world’s leading producer of sulphur bentonite, said those who were worried could have saved themselves some grief.
“There was never any doubt that we would rebuild the Atmore plant, that we would come back bigger and better,” Cherry said prior to the factory’s May 15 grand reopening. “We believe in Atmore; we believe in this production facility and its importance to the agricultural economy.”
Cherry praised the “invaluable contributions and tireless diligence of the Tiger-Sul team and the people of Atmore” — including Mayor Jim Staff and Fire Chief Ron Peebles — in bringing the facility back to full production in less than nine months. (The factory, which reportedly employs “about 50 people,” actually resumed full production in late April.)
According to a company fact sheet, the local Tiger-Sul fertilizer mill is the larger of the two sulphur bentonite plants in the United States. The factory, which sits on a 38-acre site in Atmore Industrial Park, has 23,000 square feet in its rebuilt production facility; its warehouse, which was not damaged in the fire, has a storage capacity of 2,000 tons of finished product.
The Atmore site is one of just three Tiger-Sul manufacturing facilities in North America. The company also has a plant in Stockton, Calif., and the world’s largest sulphur bentonite plant, also a Tiger-Sul facility, is located in Irricana, Alberta, Canada.
Sulphur bentonite is created through a process of “pelletizing a mixture of elemental sulphur and bentonite clay to produce a water-degradable prill (pellet or solid globule of a substance formed during an industrial process) that includes adding dry clay dust to molten sulphur at an elevated temperature.”
Will Ruzic, executive director of Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance, launched a persistent effort on behalf of the company and finally persuaded the Alabama Department of Commerce to grant a waiver that would allow the existing plant access to tax abatements that are generally reserved for start-up businesses and industries.
“The state is actually going to classify this as a new project because of the severity of the loss,” Ruzic explained to the city council in September. “They had the idea of classifying this as a new project, which allows us to capture some statutory incentives to help with the process.”
The tax abatement eventually approved by Atmore City Council members will allow the company to avoid property taxes on new equipment for 10 years and to forego sales taxes on supplies and materials purchased locally during the factory restoration effort.
Jess Nicholas, associate director of the five-county (Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia and Monroe), nonprofit economic development organization, pointed out that the abatement was one of the keys to solidifying the factory-reboot project.
“Typically, you can’t get that type abatement unless there are going to be jobs created,” Nicholas said during a May 25 telephone interview. “For Tiger-Sul, it was going to end up being a total loss that they could have walked away from. They were in need but not really sure where to go for help. Coastal Gateway is very appreciative to the city council and the state for approving the tax abatement. They did not have to do what they did.”
He added that the tax waiver was actually more important than a lot of people might have thought.
“The city and the state did the right thing — they helped an existing industry,” Nicholas said. “One of the reasons we were so concerned with helping them is that, in economic development, three-fourths of your growth is from existing industries. Sometimes people forget that.”
Staff said he and other officials did all they could to help the manufacturer get back on its feet by granting the tax abatement and smoothing out the permitting process.
“We pushed that thing from the time it burned until we could get it open,” he said. We made sure of safety, but we did everything we could do to make the permits happen. I already knew they were big, but I didn’t realize how big. We had to keep it open.”
The Tiger-Sul CEO said most locals did not realize the scope or significance of the Atmore plant’s operations, which includes business dealings on five continents.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but you have fertilizer shipped from Atmore to places all across the United States, to South America, to Latin America, to Europe, to China and to Africa,” Cherry said. “So you can see how important the Atmore plant is to agriculture all over the world.”