In early May, Terry Walmsley didn’t seem worried about Fibrowatt LLC’s chances of building a $140 million plant near Elkin to turn chicken litter into electricity. “We’re more bullish today than we have been in months,” the Langhorne, Pa.-based company’s vice president of environmental and public affairs said. Two weeks later, Surry County commissioners voted unanimously to sever ties, telling Fibrowatt that they were putting the 117-acre site up for sale to other industrial users.
What happened? Chairman Paul Johnson says commissioners lost patience. There had been warning shots: Earlier this spring, the board had voted to withhold local incentives for the plant — which would have created about 80 jobs burning poultry waste to generate power — unless Fibrowatt started answering residents’ questions about the potential smell and environmental hazards. A few days later, the Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, withdrew its endorsement of the plant.
That initially seemed to work. “They’re starting to gain some trust,” Johnson said in early May, referring to Fibrowatt executives meeting with community groups. “Business people in the county have made comments that were favorable to Fibrowatt.” Walmsley also believed his company had turned the corner. “What we’ve tried to do is provide as many opportunities as possible for people to learn about our proposals.” In addition to meetings, he says, the company started a blog — www.thestraightpoop.org — to counter opposition to its projects, including those in Sampson and Montgomery counties.
But residents weren’t convinced. Richard Loftis, who owns a Mount Airy heating and air-conditioning company, attended one of the presentations. “The folks that spoke to us were very sincere. They didn’t dodge our questions, and they sounded like they would be good corporate citizens.” However, Loftis wasn’t sure the project was right for Surry County. Opposition grew; the meetings ended. “It wasn’t just the environmental activists,” Johnson says. “It was average, everyday citizens that were concerned with what was going on.”
Fibrowatt says it will proceed with the other North Carolina plants, but the company faces another problem: It still doesn’t have a buyer for the electricity they would produce. Meanwhile, Surry County is marketing the site — which it bought for about $786,000 — to a variety of industries, Johnson says, adding that he’s not worried about potential buyers being scared off by the nullification of the Fibrowatt deal. “If other companies do their due diligence like our economic-development people ask them to, this county is very helpful. But they have to be responsive to our needs.”