Vidalia Denim project makes sense

Published 12:30 am Sunday, July 22, 2018

Economic development projects are rarely sure things, particularly in small, rural parts of the world such as our community.

Almost all of them contain some kind of risk — the business model may not work, financing may fall through or something else unforeseen occurs.

Last week, the Town of Vidalia announced a project that promises to bring 300 jobs to the area and, at least on paper, the Vidalia Denim project seems to make sense.

Through the years, my common sense approach to vetting economic development projects comes down to a couple of simple questions: Why here? Does their business depend on proven technology or something unproven?

The defunct Rentech project from a few years ago could never answer the first question in a meaningful way.

Rentech planned to gasify coal, sourced from elsewhere, and turn it into a diesel alternative. That Rentech’s raw material has to be transported here always seemed suspicious.

It’s only logical reason for being here was that the company sought to eventually sell their fuel to the U.S. government, particularly the Air Force’s fleet in Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport.

Unfortunately, Rentech depended on proven, but unusual technology originally developed by the Germans during World War II. That technology has never taken off.

Eventually Rentech’s business plans seemed to fall apart and the property was sold to the county.

Several other suitors have come to our area. A couple made good sense on the “Why locate here?” question.

A few planned to use raw materials in plentiful supply in our area.

Renewable chemical manufacturer Elevance Renewable Sciences, for example, planned to create world-class chemicals from renewable, plant-derived oils.

Our area had an abundance of soybeans the oil from which was going to be one of Elevance’s feedstocks. That answered the first question: The plant would be located nearby to a source of raw materials. But for the second question, Elevance’s plans required the use of a special chemical catalyst to crack carbon chains to create their products. Eventually lower petroleum prices messed up the company’s financial viability that along with apparent problems with ramping up the volumes from initial test work proved deadly.

Their location was sold and now operates as a biodiesel manufacturing facility, using the good location relative to feedstocks, but it also used existing, proven technology and has done well since.

Ill-fated KiOR had the same problem. They planned to use nearby wood products to create fuel, but it used untested technology and ultimately failed.

All of these failures underscore why Vidalia Denim may prove to be just the opposite — a success.

Although the finances, management and other plans are yet to be proven, Vidalia Denim answers both vetting questions with promising answers.

The company plans to use cotton as its raw material. Our area has produced amazing amounts of cotton since the early 1800s. Locating near the raw material lowers costs. Check.

Further, the company plans to make fabric, technology that has existed for a long, long time. Check No. 2.

All of that suggests Vidalia Denim is locating in Vidalia for a solid business reason and that their technology is proven.

That gives them two positive marks. The rest will be up to them. Our area wants and needs them to succeed.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.