Quality control: Allura employees Alan Freeman, Larry Hughes and Kris McClary measure a sample of green sheet in the plant on April 11, 2018, in the Vigo County Industrial Park. Staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza
Quality control: Allura employees Alan Freeman, Larry Hughes and Kris McClary measure a sample of green sheet in the plant on April 11, 2018, in the Vigo County Industrial Park. Staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza

Two abbreviations aptly describe Vigo County’s 21st-century economy — B.P. and A.P. Or, “before Pfizer” and “after Pfizer.”

A promising point on the A.P. portion of that timeline is near. A new manufacturer, Saturn Petcare, is poised to occupy physical space Pfizer once filled by early next year.

Pfizer, a global pharmaceutical giant, provided steady, high-paying jobs to hundreds and generations of workers for 60 years before closing in 2008. Pfizer accounted for nearly 2 percent of the county’s total assessed property valuation before it shut down. Its employees loyally supported charitable causes and donated $221,572 to the United Way in 2006 alone. With a $25.3-million payroll, Pfizer staffers fueled local businesses, restaurants and shops. 

Then, after producing animal research and antibiotics since 1947, the Vigo County plant’s heralded new product — an inhaled insulin called Exubera — failed to win over diabetics and fizzled. Pfizer ended production in 2007. Six-hundred and 60 workers lost their jobs. Within a year, the remaining 140 employees were let go, too.

Months later, the Great Recession hit. The community hadn’t absorbed such a blow since Prohibition shut down the breweries.

So years later, when a rising pharma company first announced intentions to transform the empty Pfizer facility into a cancer drug manufacturing plant, and then withdrew that plan, the disappointment was profound. County economic development officials had spent several years trying to market the Pfizer site.

Representatives from the prospective company, California-based Nantworks, came to Terre Haute to personally deliver the tough news.

“That was one of the worst days in my life,” said Steve Witt, who’s been a point person for the county’s economic development for more than 30 years.

Nantworks had a high profile. It is led by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a cancer researcher from Los Angeles, whose groundbreaking work was featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2014. Nantworks had announced in early 2012 a deal with the Vigo County Redevelopment Commission for the company to invest $120 million into the old Exubera plant, where cancer treatment and critical care products would be made. By 2016, it would employ 234 people.

“Pfizer [closing] was such a difficult pill to swallow, with the closing of that facility, and we thought we hit the jackpot with Nantworks,” Witt recalled during his speech Tuesday at the annual Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce Groundhog Day Economic Forecast at Indiana State University.

The company’s plans changed. “Not their fault,” Witt emphasized. “It was a change in the global market for the product they were going to manufacture. That’s the way the work goes.”

Witt has coped with lots of “almost” and “runnerup” finishes in competition for new business and industries looking for a home base. He’s also seen successes. Witt detailed four pluses in the past two years that leave him optimistic, which isn’t unusual, about the community’s economic future. Three new manufacturers chose Terre Haute as a location for new facilities, totaling $99 million and 355 jobs, while another firm, Steel Dynamics Inc., has taken over the former Heartland Steel/CSN steel plant with plans to operate it at capacity levels.

Among the new manufacturers in town is Saturn Petcare, a German pet products manufacturer that is moving into the old Pfizer facility. Though it’s not been heated in recent years and has some roof and minor mold issues, the building has “weathered well,” Witt explained. “And, we’ve been very fortunate in that respect. And, we’re very fortunate that the tide has turned with Saturn.”

A claw-back arrangement with Nantworks, totaling $5,000 per prospective job unfulfilled, and other legal steps helped the county recoup nearly all of the $1.2 million in expenses on that deal, Witt said Tuesday. Meanwhile, Saturn Petcare will invest $39 million into its operation, employing 200 workers with an average wage of $18.60 an hour. And, the company will do that in a “highly specialized facility,” as Witt put it, filling a unique structure with low ceilings and other unique facets — not exactly an easy, one-size-fits-all site to market to potential occupants. 

Nearby at the Vigo County Industrial Park, Select Genetics operates a new $30 million turkey hatchery, the world’s largest, Witt said, employing 100 people. On Terre Haute’s north side, Pyrolyx USA is launching a new $30 million plant, where carbon black, oil and metal will be extracted from shredded tires to produce raw materials for rubber and plastics industries. Multi-million expansions and additions at existing plants, including Tredegar, Taghleef and Quasar Energy Partners add to that turning tide Witt referenced.

The combined numbers from the new ventures don’t yet match those of Pfizer. Circumstances change, though. Sony DADC become one of the county’s largest employers, topping 1,200 workers at one point, yet began with a much smaller workforce.

“They started with 100 employees back in the early 1980s,” Witt said. “So, who’s to say one of these companies in 20 or 30 years could be another” leading employer.

Days after Pfizer’s stunning 2008 announcement of its local closing, a customer-service firm, Alorica, declared its plan to open a call center in the vacant Plaza North shopping center. Its operation, at peak, would employ 750 people, nearing the Pfizer numbers but at wages well below the pharmaceutical company’s level. Obviously, that wasn’t an even-Steven exchange for Terre Haute.

Alorica closed in Terre Haute last year after a decade in the city. Sony laid off 375 of its 680 remaining workers, decades after it began making compact discs and DVDs here.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels attended Alorica’s grand opening in 2008. That day, I asked him about Pfizer leaving. Daniels compared Indiana’s economy to a bathtub with the faucet running full force, but the drain plug pulled. The governor said his goal was to have two businesses arrive for every one that leaves.

Thus, the pursuit of new employers never ends. And for now, Terre Haute’s faucet appears to be running.

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