WEIRTON — Turning an old machine shop in Weirton that had been empty for more than a decade ago into a manufacturing center wasn’t easy. Or cheap.
Bidell Gas Compression’s Dan Martin said they’ve spent more than $2 million getting the building back in working order. But, with the renovations done, Martin said they’re positioned now to reap the benefits of having a plant located in the heart of the tri-state’s Marcellus and Utica shale reserves.
“Everyone’s excited that we’re here,” he said. “In the tri-state area, all the gas compressors … were primarily coming out of Oklahoma and Texas. That means local businesses didn’t benefit from all the gas compression in this area. It was the business community in Oklahoma and Texas that benefited. Our customers were paying $100,000 to $150,000 extra to have compressors shipped here from (out West), so they’re excited.”
Bidell is leasing the property from the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle, which acquired it from Frontier Group. It was part of an 1,100 acre surplus property parcel ArcelorMittal had sold Frontier because it wasn’t needed for operations still being done in Weirton.
It’s using the property to build gas compression equipment for customers in the tri-state area. Until now, Martin, vice president of manufacturing for Bidell, said the local business community wasn’t reaping the benefits of its strategic position. He said the Weirton plant has already landed several big orders, though he cannot divulge customer names or order details.
He said the Weirton plant currently employs about 30 people, though Martin said he figures to have 60-100 on staff six months from now. And when the company hits peak operations, he said there should be about 200 workers on staff.
“We’re just starting to slowly hire,” he said. “We’re paced by the amount of engines we can buy from Caterpillar. Until Caterpillar (expands), we’ll get about two a month, but we could easily handle five a month. We do have our sales team working. They already got us our first job. I know there are others potentially in the wings that we should get. It takes years to build your customer base up. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Martin said the $2 million in renovations began in February, when the BDC gave him the keys to the building. Bidell, headquartered in Alberta, Canada, “hired locally and purchased locally, as much as we could,” Martin said.
“The renovation was monumental,” said Martin, Bidell’s vice president of manufacturing. “There were a lot of unforeseen things, we just didn’t anticipate. But we’re done with the renovations and we’ve got a great building.”
But to get there, he said they had to re-power the entire building, installing a new transformer and running new electrical lines throughout the two-story structure, then installing more than 90 LED lights. They also installed new HVAC systems.
“The water system, that was our biggest challenge,” he said. “When this building closed they walked away from (it) and left all the water in the lines. The pipes broke, plumbing burst and sewer lines collapsed. We had to replace all the sewer lines, separate new water lines and the lines bringing water into the plant, so it was a big task.”
Then there were the 60-dumpster loads of trash and debris that had to be cleared out. “It was like people just got up and left,” he said.
Even the overhead cranes and other heavy equipment that had been left behind had to be inspected, overhauled and recertified.
“I’ve only been with the company for five years, but it was our president (Sean Ulmer) who recognized the potential six or seven years ago. He actually came to the Tri-State area and said he couldn’t believe there wasn’t a compressor manufacturing shop in the middle of this area,” Martin said. “He saw it … and the quest began. We looked at 40-plus buildings and then found this one in Weirton. It’s been a win-win. There’s an old saying in real estate, ‘location, location, location’ and we nailed it with this facility in Weirton. There couldn’t be a better location for us.”
He said the plant has about 78,000 square feet of manufacturing floor space and another 30,000 square feet for offices, plus land available if officials do decide down they road they need more.
“I’m not going to say it will happen, but if there’s a need we could build an addition,” he said. “I walk down the hallways of this building and I’m still amazed that we pulled it off. It’s quite the feat. It starts with having vision, everything starts with vision. Our president is that guy. He could see the value of being in the area. That’s how it started.”
BDC Executive Director Pat Ford said Bidell’s decision to locate in Weirton “reinforces the fact that West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle has the skilled labor force, and real estate inventory, to be the platform for international companies to open their first U.S. manufacturing operations in West Virginia.”
Staff writer Linda Harris can be reached at 304-374-0403 or email firstname.lastname@example.org