- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

NEWPORT, Ind. (AP) - When Bill Laubernds tours the 7,000-acre Newport Chemical Depot - complete with abandoned structures, old cemeteries and derelict signs of the country’s chemical history of producing chemical weapons - he doesn’t see an old chemical plant site. He sees potential.

Laubernds, executive director of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, has since 2009 been trying to build a new future at the Newport site, complete with businesses, industrial investment and natural, open space in the confines of the fenced-in expanse that used to house part of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.

The last truck filled with VX left the depot in 2008.

You can truck the chemical weapons away, but can you ever really separate the depot from the weapons?

The staff at the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, town residents and the Vermillion County area hope the answer is a resounding “yes” for the sake of the economy. Over the past decade, Vermillion County has experienced a shrinking labor force and high joblessness.

The county has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 11 percent, according to a March estimate by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, versus the state’s 6.6 percent average rate. By comparison, Tippecanoe County’s unemployment rate is 5.6 percent.

“The first threshold is the creation of a thousand jobs,” Laubernds told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1mqp0gB ). “Reaching those goals will dramatically improve the lives of people in west-central Indiana. When you have a total population of 15,000 and you can add 1,000 jobs, almost everyone you know would have a job.”

Companies that locate there don’t seem to mind its past use, Laubernds said.

“Because the federal government has ensured that the hazardous waste has been cleaned up and indemnified subsequent users, that gives businesses coming in some level of comfort,” Laubernds said. “They do their own due diligence, and we’ve found they’ve become very comfortable.”

But an impressive remarketing endeavor - the site is known solely as Vermillion Rise in economic development circles -hasn’t yet pushed employment at the site to the level Laubernds hopes for. He expects 250 people to be employed at the site by the end of 2014.

“That’s far less than when they were building the facility or operating the facility,” Laubernds said, referencing the days when the Newport Chemical Depot employed 10,000 workers. “But still, it’s a significant step from zero, where we started.”

Boosting employment is critical, he said, in order to make ends meet financially.

“Can you develop a no-growth scenario and pay the bills? Obviously if you can’t pay the bills, you’re out of business,” Laubernds said.

The past use of the site has posed some challenges. The Army was first attracted to the site for its proximity to a large aquifer, but now the site’s massive water system is working at a higher capacity than needed.

“They needed very, very clean water and lots of it,” Laubernds said. “In fact, a hundred million gallons a day to produce the heavy water for the Manhattan project, which, of course, was the program that developed the first atomic bomb.”

Laubernds hopes for the day when a half-million gallons of water per day are consumed at Vermillion Rise. He’s not there yet.

In downtown Newport, the townspeople seem to have cooled from the promise of a massive economic revitalization.

Mike Phelps, the Vermillion County sheriff’s deputy, said the jobs they have attracted so far aren’t desirable to residents.

“Most people have kind of lost hope at this point,” said Phelps.

Could it be that VX production at the depot represented Newport’s glory days?

“It absolutely hurt when they did close it down,” said Gidget Hall inside her quiet market shortly after noon on a recent Monday. That was the time of day her shop used to be full of lunch business from the depot.

Economic development takes time, said Laubernds, and there are exciting deals in the works.

That includes partnerships with Duke Energy, which he says is building a 100 megawatt-capacity substation at the depot, and rail line CSX, which plans to invest millions in existing rail line.

“We happen to be in an ideal location for CSX,” Laubernds said. “Their north-south line from Jacksonville to Chicago . goes right by this site. Their main east-west line that goes into Avon, that is just to the south of the site.”

Sure, the depot has some unusual features. There are the six old cemeteries. Fifty-two derelict TNT and RDX storage sheds. A half-finished powder facility that was abandoned by the Army decades ago.

But there’s promise for commercial enterprise, too. The depot’s location between Interstates 74 and 70 makes for ideal truck transportation. The huge water resource. Land with the drainage to support a large enterprise.

And it never hurts, Laubernds hopes, that there’s a good story to tell.

___

Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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