Largely idle for the past six years, the former Fleetwood Travel Trailer plant in Hancock will be producing lightweight precast concrete products early next year, according to the chief executive officer for Evolve Composites Inc.
"We've made a pretty serious investment in this country .... We're in Hancock for the long term," Martin Bristow said Thursday.
Evolve Composites has plants in Pompano Beach, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., but wanted to expand it's market, Bristow said.
"The next logical step was the Northeast," he said.
Modifications to the building will begin Oct. 1, and he expects production of utility pads, pavers and blocks to begin by mid-January.
At a Hancock Town Council meeting Wednesday, Mayor Daniel A. Murphy announced that the town and Evolve had agreed to terms for a seven-year lease on the Stanley E. Fulton Industrial Complex. The 110,000-square-foot building on 22 acres had been one of three Fleetwood plants in Washington County until it closed in 2005.
Evolve will create 60 or more jobs within the first three years of the lease, Murphy said. Both he and Bristow said the company could eventually employ more workers.
Evolve will only be using about 30 percent to 40 percent of the existing space by next spring, Bristow said. The company agreed to a long-term lease with a view to expanding operations in the future, he said.
The lease agreement, which was approved unanimously by the council, has two five-year renewal options, Murphy said Wednesday.
While Evolve will not pay rent in the first year, the company will pay $2 a square foot in the second and third years, with a 3 percent annual increase in the following years, according to Stephen M. Gyurisin of Advance Planning Associates of Winchester, Va., who helped with marketing the site.
Fleetwood once employed 300 or more people at the plant, and its closing was just one of several blows the Hancock economy suffered in recent years. In 1994, the town lost about 300 jobs when London Fog shut its coat factory, and Rayloc ceased production at its Hancock plant in 2008, costing another 260 jobs.
"We lost 100 percent. That's about as bad as it gets," Murphy said Thursday about the loss of essentially all manufacturing jobs in Hancock.
While the county jobless rate is about 10 percent, he figures it is substantially higher in the Hancock area.
"We still have a lot of good folks who aren't working," said the mayor, noting that he would like to see Evolve's move create a ripple effect benefiting the community's restaurants, shops, service companies and other businesses. It might even attract the attention of other companies, he said.
"Maybe somebody else will take a risk on a little town like ours," Murphy said.
Neighboring communities in Morgan County, W.Va., and Fulton County, Pa., will also benefit, Murphy said.
An informal group of about a dozen elected and economic development officials, business people and concerned citizens has been working to market the property, Murphy said. Bristow first looked at the property about two months ago, he said.
The town purchased the plant in 2008 with $900,000 provided by businessman Stanley E. Fulton, with the aim of recruiting a manufacturer to fill it, Town Manager David Smith said. While that took it off the tax rolls, Hancock was able to generate enough income from leases to make up for the loss, he said.
Income from the new lease could help ease the tax burden on the town's taxpayers, Smith said.
There are currently two companies leasing space at the Stanley E. Fulton Industrial Complex — Morgan Rail and Meherrin Ag & Chemical Co. The town is working to find both new locations, Smith said.
Hancock also has access to $600,000 in Maryland Community Development Block Grant funds it will use to make improvements to the property in coming months, Smith said.
Those include paving the parking area, fencing, construction of interior loading docks, improved lighting, garage door repairs and any needed work on the plant's operating systems, he said.