WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — It’s almost time to begin rolling out the barrels in Greenbrier County.
Production of thousands of white oak whiskey barrels is expected to commence next month at the West Virginia Great Barrel Company’s cooperage in the Harts Run area of White Sulphur Springs.
In a recent interview with The Register-Herald, one of the company’s managers, Tom Crabtree, said he was encouraged by the level of support — both private and public — that the ambitious endeavor has received as this milestone approaches. All but $12 million of the $35 million cost of the plant, he said, came from private investment sources, with conventional bank debt making up the difference.
From the beginning, Crabtree has seen the Great Barrel Company as a way to jump-start the economy of White Sulphur Springs and the surrounding region that still stands in the shadow of the tragic flood of 2016. The company’s investors share that vision, he said.
“A lot of people invested in this project because of their love of this community,” he said. “People wanted to be a part of the great recovery.”
The cooperage at Harts Run is where the staves will finish drying and barrels will be assembled, “toasted” to caramelize the sugars in the wood and then charred in fire before being shipped to a distillery to be filled with whiskey.
“We’re focused on a very high-quality barrel,” Crabtree said.
Smooth Ambler Spirits in nearby Maxwelton has already signed on as the Great Barrel Company’s first customer. TAG Galyean — one of the founders of Smooth Ambler — is also a founder of the Great Barrel Company.
Also integral to the barrel-making process are the loggers who harvest the timber (primarily within a 150-mile radius of the cooperage) and the Audrina Mill in Gap Mills, where the staves are made.
Crabtree said most of the cooperage’s 60 employees will start work sometime this month. The Monroe County mill employs an additional 30 people, and another 180 forestry industry workers are involved in supplying the white oak.
“That’s a lot of jobs,” Crabtree said, noting that the company received 1,200 applications for positions at the cooperage. While key management posts went to experienced barrel-makers from other cooperages around the country, most jobs were filled from the local workforce, he said.
“A vast amount of white oak is available for our work here,” Crabtree said, adding, “We’re advocating sustainable forestry. And this natural resource will have value added right here in West Virginia.”
A Marshall University study, Crabtree said, projected the Great Barrel Company will have an annual local economic impact of $50 million.
The cooperage alone boasts structures containing around 120,000 square-feet — about three acres under roof, Crabtree said. The 20-acre site at Harts Run is part of what Crabtree calls Greenbrier County’s “first new industrial park in a generation.”
The as-yet unnamed industrial park contains seven other developable properties that are being marketed by the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation (GVEDC) as shovel-ready parcels.
Thanks to the public investment made to prepare the site for the Great Barrel Company, Crabtree is optimistic that those additional parcels will soon see construction activity as well.
He said he expects all of the necessary infrastructure to be in place before the end of the month.
Earlier this year, White Sulphur Springs received a $1.536 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and matching funds in the amount of $400,000 from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to complete a water extension along Harts Run Road to the industrial park.
A new roadway — dubbed Mountain Home Road — had been paved last week from Harts Run Road through the industrial park just prior to Crabtree’s interview with The Register-Herald. Most of the funding for that $1.1 million project came from the West Virginia Division of Highways’ Industrial Access Road program, while the city of White Sulphur Springs supplied the necessary matching funds through revenue from its TIF District, which includes the cooperage site. That TIF outlay was budgeted for around $277,103.83, according to figures provided by the Greenbrier County Commission office.
TIF revenue is also being used to extend sewer service to the site. The sewer project was budgeted for $147,130, the commission’s figures show.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) allows a government entity to set aside new property taxes that result from development in a specified area. That revenue is then used for local infrastructure and economic development projects.
Crabtree praised city and county officials for recognizing the opportunity to use the TIF program to attract and retain industry. Both White Sulphur and the county commission have to approve expenditures of TIF funds.
“It’s very wise of the county commission and the city to invest in a project like this,” Crabtree said. “This project will yield more than $200,000 a year in tax revenue, and families have moved here because of it. The city and county should be proud of what they’ve done.”
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