TERRE HAUTE —
Steve Witt fielded a jarring phone call in October 2007.
Last week, his office telephone lit up with calls from well-wishers.
The four years in between those moments felt pretty bleak, at times, for Witt, the president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.
“It’s been a very interesting process, and educational,” Witt said Wednesday. “It’s been extremely difficult.”
The closing of the Pfizer plant in southern Vigo County left a deep wound in the local economy. On Oct. 18, 2007, the company shut down production of Exubera, an inhaled insulin drug that failed to appeal to diabetes patients. Pfizer had invested $300 million into its Exubera operation at the plant, which opened after World War II. Eventually, the firm closed the entire facility. As a result, 750 high-paying jobs were lost. The county lost hefty tax revenue, too; Pfizer paid $334,007 in Vigo taxes in 2007. The United Way of the Wabash Valley lost a massive contributor; Pfizer donated $440,000 in 2006, accounting for 21 percent of the organization’s fundraising efforts.
“I’ll probably never forget the morning I got the call from a Pfizer representative, saying they were going to announce they were ready to pull the plug on the Exubera project,” Witt said.
“Losing Pfizer,” he added, “was a tremendous blow in so many ways.”
Much was lost. Fortunately, hope was not a casualty, too. The significant void left by Pfizer could begin to refill.
The California-based company NantWorks announced last week that it will locate a new pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in the former Pfizer facility, creating 234 new jobs with an average annual salary of $51,000. It is expected to be operational by 2016. The plant must be retooled for production of NantWorks’ critical-care injectable and cancer drugs, among others, and that takes time. Approvals by the federal Food and Drug Administration of the products and manufacturing process don’t happen overnight either.
Four years seems like forever in a town hungry for jobs. Yet, “it is really lightning speed for the pharmaceuticals industry,” Witt said.
Vigo Countians are indeed anxious. A few called the Tribune-Star the morning the announcement hit the newspaper, asking about NantWorks job applications. It’s still early for that, though work to earn FDA validation will initially involve about 30 people, mostly engineers.
Some “ifs” remain. “There’s no guarantee the [FDA] approvals will come,” Witt said. “That’s why the pharmaceutical industry is such a risky business.” The deal involves state tax and training incentives for NantWorks, which bought the site appraised at $6.5 million from the Vigo County Redevelopment Commission for the token price of $1, as well as compensation to the county if the project doesn’t unfold as planned.
Still, NantWorks’ intentions brighten the economic skies over Terre Haute. The announcement comes at a time when the economy is “slowly improving,” Witt said. The recovery from the Great Recession, which hit in December 2007, has been too slow for most people, and that comeback remains somewhat fragile. “But within the last year, we’ve seen a major uptick in inquiries” by companies interested in Vigo County, Witt added.
The diversity of local employers helped Terre Haute weather the recession better than other communities relying on one mega-industry, he said. That mix of companies and the workforce serving them, along with the presence of five colleges, enhance the city’s appeal.
There have been rough times, though. Inquiries by site-shopping companies slowed to a trickle in the depths of the recession. Pfizer had its 845-acre campus on the market for nearly a year, before the county acquired the property in September 2009. That “put us in the property management business,” Witt said, which led to his own crash courses in building maintenance. The day Pfizer officials physically turned over the keys was an eye-opener, too.
“I’ve never seen so many keys and key cores in all my life,” Witt said. “We’re talking hundreds.”
The possibility of handing those same keys to another pharmaceutical firm someday seemed like a longshot. The building has been vacant for almost two years. Time can take a toll, and was running out. “I personally thought the chances of obtaining another pharmaceutical company for the facility was probably pretty slim,” Witt said.
A different drug-producing company toured the site last spring. “We thought it was a very positive visit, and they left, and we never heard from them again,” Witt recalled.
The Pfizer site drew NantWorks’ attention in September, and the California business created by biotech billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong quickly arranged a tour, and then continued working toward last week’s announcement.
“A lot of good fortune and stars aligning,” Witt said, describing NantWorks’ decision to invest $120 million over five years in redeveloping the plant.
Filling the shoes of Pfizer — a global corporate giant — remains a tall order for the community. Is it realistic to expect a newcomer company to become a Pfizer-like bedrock of local employment for the next 60 years? “Perhaps not,” Aparna Krishnan, a senior analyst for health care and pharma issues at IHS Global Insight at London, told the Tribune-Star last week by email.
The void left by Pfizer must be kept in perspective. Pfizer employed 300-plus people before ramping up its workforce for the Exubera in the past decade, Witt pointed out. The future can’t be predicted, he emphasized, but “this [NantWorks] project and opportunity compares very well with what Pfizer had at the site before [Exubera].”
The presence of a world-class company such as NantWorks also increases the potential for more to consider the county, Witt said. It gives the community credibility in the intense competition for prospective industries.
“I think we have a lot to be thankful for,” Witt said.
Folks who clung to that belief back in October 2007 helped keep Terre Haute progressing toward the possibility for better days.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
Hope was not a casualty when Pfizer left town
TERRE HAUTE —
Steve Witt fielded a jarring phone call in October 2007.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book
I can read a book on the beach. Until I start sweating. Then it feels like exercise, minus the fitness perks. My brain shifts into neutral as the waves roll in, blissfully washing away footprints in the sand and my inclination to think. Better put, I enjoy starting a book on the beach, and finishing it later, elsewhere.
Police: Mom, son conspire to kill witness
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department seems to have prevented what it believes was a mother-and-son conspiracy to commit murder.
Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment
Pioneers think counterintuitively. Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress. In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities
Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.
“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers
Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.
You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”
Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?
MARK BENNETT: By whatever name, stomach virus still a sick story
It’s the ugly side of the cold-and-flu season.
MARK BENNETT: Living on the banks
We are the Wabash.
MARK BENNETT: Rising young producer lands spot in Sundance Film Festival
When a project clicks, the moment is clear.
MARK BENNETT: Remember the 20 children lost
Their names were listed on the screen at the front of the church on Sunday.
Our pastor asked us to choose one and pray for their family. I selected Noah Pozner, just by chance.
MARK BENNETT: Tasting panel to help find Champagne Velvet’s ‘million-dollar flavor’
Rounding up enough volunteers to serve on a committee can be a struggle.
MARK BENNETT: Thanksgiving’s feast can be defined by either the presence of family or the family’s quest for presents
The best gift deals will be gone by 12:01 a.m. Nov. 23.
MARK BENNETT: Salvation Army touches many lives
Sometimes, the unexpected happens.
MARK BENNETT: Election excellence: 30 out of 32 is pretty darn good
Detroit car makers unveil the latest Mustangs and Corvettes on Wabash Avenue.
MARK BENNETT: Climbing the rungs of Lincoln’s Ladder
One crucial quality helped Abraham Lincoln become America’s greatest president.
Courage? Political savvy? Wisdom? Moral character?
MARK BENNETT: Drop the needle
Over time, excellence and nostalgia inappropriately merge in our minds.
No matter the age, voting’s a part of American fabric
The electoral karma seemed, well, unfair.
MARK BENNETT: A moment on the brink
Ominous, but distant.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book