Tuesday, the north side of Kokomo reclaimed a factory destined for the scrap heap and brought back 140 jobs many thought lost for good.
Five years after the former Kokomo Pottery closed up shop, new owners Patriot Porcelain are hard at work refurbishing the plant as part of a $16 million investment.
A year from now, the plan is for Porcelain to have 140 workers making vitreous pottery 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the plant, producing about 425,000 pieces of product a year.
With help from the city of Kokomo, the state of Indiana, equity investors and guaranteed loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Patriot Porcelain is about to do something Kokomo has seen precious little of in the past two decades.
Instead of closing a north side plant, Patriot is redeveloping one. For a side of town which has seen Delco, Globe Stove, Kingston and other manufacturing sites close, the reopening of the pottery is a minor miracle.
“There’s been a lot of directed prayer sent your way. I think what you’re doing is great. Thank you,” former pottery worker and current local pastor Jeff Russell told Patriot president Jeff Van Weelden at a ceremony Tuesday.
Dow Dellinger, the attorney for the new company, praised the city of Kokomo’s involvement. Last year, with an option on the property running out, the city stepped in with a loan to help Patriot officials retain their claim to the factory.
“I talked with a lot of politicians and got lip service, but Mayor Goodnight got things done,” Dellinger said. “When the option on the building was running out and we realized we might need to find some money, the city helped us, and we gave them about nine hours advance notice.”
Patriot plans to bring in 10 new presses and about 13 robots, along with 1,000 feet of conveyor belt, turning a plant which was formerly a labor intensive, highly “hands-on” operation into a much cleaner, more automated plant.
Production is set to begin in seven months and full production is expected in about one year, company officials said.
The 330,000-square-foot facility will use the former pottery’s kilns, which have been maintained since the closure, said Brian Fiala, vice president of administration at Gerber Plumbing Fixtures and a board member of Patriot Porcelain.
Gerber and a second company, Niagara Faucets, both wholesalers, have already contracted to purchase toilets from Patriot over the next five years.
Fiala said Gerber has a contract to purchase at least 300,000 units a year, all of which will be sold to commercial plumbing distributors.
Niagara sells to “big box” retailers, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. All of the toilets will be sold under Gerber or Niagara imprints, along with the words “Made in the U.S.A.”
Getting those contracts in place took up the bulk of the time it took to put the deal together, Van Weelden explained. Without the contracts, the company would have had difficulty obtaining financing.
“This economic development project is the culmination of three and a half years of hard work by a lot of people, people who share a passion and a belief that America has a manufacturing future, and there is no better place to do business than right here in Kokomo, Indiana,” Goodnight said.
Fiala said 10 years ago, as Gerber owner Globe Union Group was winding down operations at the 2500 N. Union St. plant, producing a toilet in the U.S. cost double the price of producing one in China.
Since then, shipping costs from overseas have skyrocketed and taxes and wages have been going up in China.
Technology has also worked to close the price gap, and the new pressure casting equipment at the plant will significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to produce each piece, Fiala said.
First Farmers Bank & Trust, particularly First Farmers senior vice president Cary Mawbey, was instrumental in putting the deal in place; Dellinger estimated he and Mawbey had to put together some 1,900 documents to get the USDA to back the loans.
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. is also involved, kicking in up to $700,000 in conditional tax credits and $75,000 in job training grants. At the plant Tuesday, several workers were busy, working on equipment, and Van Weelden said the company is currently hiring maintenance workers in advance of hiring production workers in the coming months.
Applicants can send resumes to P.O. Box 290, Monticello, IN 47960, or they can go to www.patriotporcelain.com for more information.