A family-owned French company that manufactures ice-cream and coffee-stir sticks will be the latest firm to open a manufacturing facility in the Southeast Kentucky Regional Business Park in Corbin — a 90-job, $15 million operation capable of producing up to two billion of the sticks annually.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin joined state and local officials Oct. 18 in welcoming Smart Wood to the area during a special ceremony. The company’s local manufacturing facility has been under construction for quite some time and is nearing full operational ability. The event was held at the facility.
Bevin, who met with Smart Wood officials in France during a European job creation trip last year, said the meeting almost didn’t happen because of travel delays and airline strikes at the time.
“We thought we would be there for just a short visit, but we barely made our flight [back]. We stayed a long time,” Bevin recalled.
“I just remember coming away and saying, ‘I want this more than almost any other company that I visited …”
Smart Wood, formerly known as Euro Sticks Group, is a multigenerational family company with facilities around the world.
Euro Sticks Group was founded in 1926 to make components for shoes prior to World War II. Thereafter, it moved into production of tongue depressors, splints and other wooden devices. As the market for popsicle and ice-cream sticks grew internationally, Euro Sticks Group expanded. In addition to France, the company now operates plants in Germany the Czech Republic, Romania and Turkey as well as distribution facilities in Australia and Mexico. It employs 750 people worldwide and supplies over 15 billion sticks annually.
In Corbin, the company built out an existing industrial building in the Southeast Kentucky Business Park to house the new operation.
The facility will use locally sourced beech logs to manufacture ice-cream and coffee-stir sticks in a variety of sizes, shapes and lengths. As well, it will offer custom logo printing. Eastern Kentucky’s supply of beech trees helped attract Smart Wood’s interest. As a hardwood, beech is strong and largely lacks odor and flavor, making it preferred for food-grade uses.
Bevin praised “the Corbin area’s foresight in preparing for economic development, the region’s ready workforce and their abundant natural resources, made them the perfect fit for this company.”
Frédéric Debacker, CEO and owner of Smart Wood, noted some statistics that informed the company’s decision to locate a manufacturing facility in the area.
“In the USA, one-third of the surface is forest. In southeast Kentucky, it is almost three-fourths,” he said. “Forestry generates one million jobs. Forestry in the USA is not a small business. It is a huge business.”
“You consume 10 billion ice cream sticks each year. Only one-fourth of those is produced locally in the USA. We realized that and we saw we needed to do something in the USA.”
He added there is a good supply chain of beech wood in the area.
Bruce Carpenter, Economic Development Director for the city of Corbin, said regional cooperation on the part of local political leaders helped make the Smart Wood plant in Corbin a reality.
“It’s been a true team effort by everyone to make this happen,” he said.
He said the company’s decision hinged largely on availability of quality health care in the area, and good schools.
“It was very critical,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter praised Virginia Combs, former Director of Economic Development, for her vision in locating the business park where it is now and said her vision has born fruit and led to many jobs.
Knox County Judge-Executive J.M. Hall said when he first heard a company might be locating in the area and was interested in using beech wood in its manufacturing process, he was mystified as to what it could be.
“My first thought is that Budweiser was coming to Knox County,” he said.
Hall added that the area “has a workforce here that is second to none that we want to provide. On behalf of all the citizens of Knox County and all the job creating you are going to do, we sincerely thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
To encourage the investment and job growth in the community, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA) in June 2016 preliminarily approved the company for tax incentives up to $3 million through the Kentucky Business Investment program. The performance-based incentive allows a company to keep a portion of its investment over the agreement term through corporate income tax credits and wage assessments by meeting job and investment targets.
In addition, Smart Wood can receive resources from the Kentucky Skills Network. Through the Kentucky Skills Network, companies can receive no-cost recruitment and job placement services, reduced-cost customized training and job training incentives. In fiscal year 2017, the Kentucky Skills Network provided training for more than 120,000 Kentuckians and 5,700 companies from a variety of industry sectors.
The Corbin plant joins nearly 500 internationally owned facilities operating in Kentucky. Those plants employ more than 105,000 people statewide. It is also one of approximately 4,500 manufacturing facilities in the commonwealth, employing more than 250,000 people.
Carpenter said grant funds helped with the build-out of the spec building Smart Wood is occupying. Grant funds through the Appalachian Regional Commission were also provided. To date, the business park has received over $6.5 million for infrastructure and road improvements.