Franklin Electric sale of Bluffton plant, 2nd ethanol project top stories of 2006

Franklin Electric sale of Bluffton plant, 2nd ethanol project top stories of 2006

From major economic development announcements and projects in terms of two ethanol plants to the nearly completed expansion of the Wells County Library and state accolades to Norwell students, Wells County experienced good times in 2006.

From the untimely and tragic deaths of several Wells County residents to the closing of an Ossian manufacturing plant that idled workers, Wells County also has experienced trying times in 2006.

From the sale of Franklin Electric’s Bluffton plant to looming changes in county government and law enforcement personnel, Wells County additionally has experienced questionable times, depending on your vantage point.

One indisputable fact is that the last 365 days have produced a multitude of news stories.

One of those events, however, stands out as Wells County’s top story of 2006: the sale of Franklin Electric’s Bluffton plant.

Eight News-Banner reporters and editors this month voted on Wells County’s Top 10 news stories of 2006 from a list of more than 45 choices; the number one pick wasn’t unanimous, but nearly so.

A plethora of big stories emerged throughout the year, but listed below are the top stories the editors and reporters identified.

Number 1

Franklin Electric sells Bluffton plant

The top-ranking story of 2006 occurred just 19 days ago when, after months of rumors and speculation, Franklin Electric officials announced that the company’s Engineered Motor Products Division had been sold to a private equity firm from Cleveland, Capital Works, LLC.

That firm will now operate the Bluffton plant as Bluffton Motor Works.

”We have every expectation that (Bluffton Motor Works) will be the same good corporate citizen that Franklin continues to be,” said Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis.

Franklin officials said that continuing to own and operate the Engineered Motor Products Division was no longer complimentary to the company’s future growth plans.

The sale included the physical campus at 400 E. Spring St., but in the immediate future, Franklin Electric plans to lease their headquarters from the new owners. Franklin Electric officials, however, foresee moving the corporate offices to a new facility.

The new division, Bluffton Motor Works, has plans to create five to six jobs right away, with the immediate need to hire some IT staff and finance professionals. The plant’s hourly workforce could also grow in 2007 as the company pursues a goal of 10 percent growth.

The new company has recognized the union, and the contract will be maintained without change until it is renegotiated in April 2009.

Franklin Electric has been a part of the Bluffton community since November 1944 when E.J. Schaefer and T.W. Kehoe started the business.

Franklin Electric Co. is the world’s largest manufacture of submersible electric motors and a leading producer of engineered speciality electric motor products and electronic controls.

Number 2

Second ethanol facility planned for Bluffton

Coming in at number two was the announcement seven weeks ago that a second ethanol plant is planned for Wells County: Wells County Ethanol LLC.

Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, S.D., announced Nov. 10 plans to build an ethanol plant on a 203-acre parcel of land south of Bluffton near the intersection of Hoosier Highway and Meridian Road.

The new plant will be less than three miles from the Indiana Bio-Energy LLC ethanol plant at the southwest edge of Bluffton.

Broin Officials have described the site as a $115 million project that is planned to begin in spring 2007 and be completed in spring 2008. The 60-million gallons-per-year project will be constructed in one phase.

The plant is expected to create 40 to 43 jobs and provide an annual payroll of $1.8 million. Officials will hire 95 percent of the work force locally.

Some controversy, however, surrounded this news story.

After Broin officials spoke with Wells County Economic Development director Garry Jones in a telephone conversation in March 2006, they perceived that they should look elsewhere to build a plant.

Jones is an initial investor in Indiana Bio-Energy, which is building an ethanol plant in Wells County, and was serving on IBE’s board of directors at the time he was contacted by Broin officials about building a plant here.

According to a Broin official, Jones said that in his opinion there wasn’t room for another plant here and suggested that the company look elsewhere.

”If I gave them that impression, my sincere apologies,” Jones told The News-Banner. He further added that he did not know who he was talking to during the initial March call, but he stressed that he explained his involvement in the IBE project.

Jones resigned from the IBE board after he realized there would be a conflict of interest and has since stressed that he absolutely welcomes Broin to Wells County and that his executive committee will act on behalf of Broin to make the project successful.

The executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce investigated the concerns about a potential conflict of interest between Jones and Broin, but found no evidence of inappropriate conduct.

On a related note, Jones announced on Dec. 1 plans for retirement in 2007.

Number 3

N-B editor Jim Barbieri dies

The death of longtime News-Banner editor Jim Barbieri in April 2006 marks the number three story of the year.

Unquestionably one of the most recognizable names and faces in Bluffton, Wells County and the surrounding area for more than five decades, Barbieri died Saturday, April 1, following complications of emphysema and lung surgery, ending a 56-year career at The News-Banner. He was 77.

”My personal struggle of 2006 was with the death of Jim Barbieri,” Ellis said. ”Jim was not only a good friend, but an irreplaceable part of our community. There will never be another like him.”

His death followed a period of several months of declining health and two major surgeries in February and March.

Barbieri was a champion for reporting the news fairly and accurately. He supported countless projects toward the betterment of the community.

During his career at The News-Banner, Barbieri held positions in the advertising, circulation and editorial departments. He was co-owner, president and publisher for more than 12 years. He had been editor in chief since 1975.

During his 56-year career at The News-Banner, he wrote approximately 2 million inches of story text ”” 31.5 miles.

The impact on the community following Barbieri’s death was immeasurable. Readers from Bluffton and across the country submitted tributes to Barbieri that were published on the editorial pages for more than one week.

Barbieri’s funeral was followed by a 20-minute, 30-vehicle procession through downtown Bluffton that stopped at three locations.

Barbieri was laid to rest in Elm Grove Cemetery on April 6 just several feet east of where Master Sgt. Michael T. Hiester was buried exactly one year earlier. As many recall, Hiester, 33, was killed around 5 a.m. Bluffton time March 26, 2005, when a land mine exploded under the military vehicle in which he and three other Indiana soldiers were riding south of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Number 4

Ossian woman murdered

The murder of Debra ”Debbie” Wilson, 45, of 610 Ingle Dr. in Ossian, is number four on the list. Her death was at first ruled suspicious but was later classified as a homicide.

In December, however, about two months after the homicide, police arrested Terry Lee Brabson, 47, of Fort Wayne on charges of murder in connection with Wilson’s death.

Wilson’s body was found by her daughter around 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11, lying in a pool of blood in the bedroom of her Rose Ann Heights residence. The Wells County coroner ruled the cause of death as blunt force trauma to her head.

A preliminary plea of not guilty was entered on behalf of Brabson. Wells Circuit Court Judge David Hanselman Sr. set April 30, 2007, as the date for Brabson’s trial. The judge set aside two weeks on the court calendar for the trial. Wilson’s homicide is the first in Wells County since the shooting death of Bo Haywood at Roush Park in Bluffton in the spring of 1995.

Number 5

Dems win big in 2006 election

Winning two of the ”big six” propelled the Wells County Democratic party back to life in the November general election, which ranks number five.

After facing near extinction with Mike Kracium holding the lone countywide office for the Democrats, the Wells County Democratic Party put both Bob Frantz in as sheriff and Nilah Aschliman in as assessor.

In his third bid for sheriff, Frantz ousted incumbent Republican Barry Story by nearly 300 votes. Aschliman won over Republican Jill Ellenberger.

Also emerging as victors in the general election were Republicans Scott Mossburg, District 1 commissioner; Laura Brubaker as auditor; Travis Holdman as District 3 county councilman; and Jim Oswalt as District 1 county councilman. Other county-level positions were unopposed.

Number 6

Traffic accident kills Ron DeWitt

The tragic traffic accident that claimed the life of Bluffton High School athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Ron DeWitt, 62, on June 13 at the intersection of Indiana 124 and Indiana 3 in Huntington County is the number six story.

Cecil B. Hall, 59, of Kenansville, N.C., was the driver of a semi tractor-trailer that crashed into the back of DeWitt’s pickup truck.

Investigators from the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department had recommended a charge of negligent homicide be filed against the trucker, but Huntington County Deputy Prosecutor Jamie Groves issued a decision in September that no criminal charges be filed.

DeWitt taught and coached at Bluffton for 39 years.

Number 7

Ossian Johnson Controls plant closing

One of the worst kept secrets in Wells County became public in September when officials from the Ossian Johnson Controls plant informed town council members that the plant would close.

On Nov. 3, the plant made its final seat for the Allen County General Motors truck plant, idling 209 workers. Johnson Controls lost its contract to supply truck seats to the General Motors plant in southwest Allen County.

Employees at Johnson Controls were offered positions at the Columbia City plant and several here reportedly accepted the offer, but word received from several sources indicated that the Columbia City plant would pay its employees about $8 an hour less than what many of the employees at Johnson earned.

Johnson Controls was the first of 11 manufacturing facilities to be built in the Ossian Industrial Park and up until November was Ossian’s second largest employer, behind T.I. Automotive.

Number 8

IBE breaks ground on ethanol plant

Ethanol again appears in this year’s Top 10 list, but this time with a different company that is nearing the two-year mark in its efforts to bring a plant to Wells County.

Indiana Bio-Energy first announced publicly in May 2005 its plan to construct a plant here, and site preparation work got under way in November for the $177.1 million, 100 million gallons-per-year corn processing ethanol plant at the southwest edge of Bluffton. The facility is targeted to be in operation by December 2008. The ethanol plant is the largest proposed economic development project in the county’s history.

The proposed plant highlighted the news pages often this year, especially in June when, at a meeting of three different local governing boards, the commissioners voted 2-1 to not support the use of CEDIT funds to provide a partial guarantee of the ethanol project’s bonds in case of default by IBE.

Following that meeting, the project appeared dead in Wells County, but the following day, the IBE board confirmed Wells County was still in the mix.

Much has transpired since then, including the funding process being completed. IBE will have a total of 419 acres at the company’s southwest Bluffton location when it closes on all of its options. The plant is expected to create 61 full-time jobs.

”… to build an ethanol plant on Bluffton’s southwest side probably was the cause of more debate and discussion ”” in every place from coffee shops to council chambers ”” for the entire year,” Ellis said.

”Bluffton and Wells County residents had to seriously consider exactly what role government should play in economic development. The investors in Indiana Bio-Energy LLC, who risked lots of their own cash in order to start a business in our county, were called on to change course several times to keep the project alive. Their commitment to bring a state-of-the-art alternative fuel production plant to Wells County and their persistence in following that dream is finally evidenced by the construction that it under way as the year ends.”

Number 9

Wells County Public Library expands

Coming in at number 9 is the almost-complete expansion of the main branch of the Wells County Public Library. In all, the expansion will add approximately 17,000 square feet to the existing 22,000-square foot facility.

The $3.5 million project will expand the library’s capacity by more than 77 percent. Upon completion, the library will be 39,280 square foot.

Construction began in March and will be finished in three phases. The first phase could be completed by next week. Internal work should be finished in the spring of 2007.

Number 10

Norwell band, football students go to state competitions

State awards and accolades for Norwell students, as well as a potential building project, rank number 10.

For the second year in a row, members of the Norwell Marching Knights band were named state champions in October in Class C at the RCA Dome. Norwell was the only northeast Indiana marching band to capture a state title at the competition.

The Knights football team advanced to the IHSAA Class 3A state championship game at the RCA Dome in November. The team, however, suffered a heart-breaking 7-0 loss to Indianapolis Bishop Chatard. The Knights ended the almost perfect season with a record of 14-1. At the end of the game, Norwell senior Chandler Harnish received the Class 3A Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award.

Finally, a petition-remonstrance drive for the $20-million Norwell remodeling and reconstruction project has been under way since late December. If the project proceeds, plans are to replace most of the oldest high school classrooms with a new structure and remodel and renovate most of the 1968-portion of the structure. Water lines from a municipality will also be brought to the school complex.

Many other 2006 events and activities could have been included in the Top 10 list, but those presented highlight just a few of the events that make 2006 unique.

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