Noranda deal barometer of area’s economy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another sign that Louisiana and the River Parishes are bucking the national economic downturn came Thursday with the announcement that Noranda Aluminum Inc. has taken exclusive ownership of the Gramercy Alumina plant in St. James Parish.

The move comes with a promise from Noranda executives that the company plans to “ramp up” production at the 50-year-old facility, which refines bauxite from Jamaican mines into the base material of aluminum. Gramercy Alumina President Larry Holley said the plant should be back at its full production capacity of 1.2 million metric tons of alumina within the next 90 days.

The increase in production goes hand-in-hand with the return of some workers who had been laid off earlier in the year. The plant was forced to lay off about 10 percent of its workforce when aluminum prices plummeted from $1.40 to 60 cents per pound.

This one-two punch of new jobs and increased production couldn’t have come at a better time for the state or the region. Unemployment figures from the Louisiana Workforce Commission for the month of August show the unemployment rate for St. James Parish sits at about 8 percent. The figure is a bit higher than the state average of 7.4 percent, but it still lower than the national rate of about 9.3 percent.

The boost at Gramercy Alumina is just one in a long line of economic positives for the River Parishes region. In addition to huge expansions at the Marathon and Valero Oil refineries, representatives from Cargill and Louisiana Sugar Growers and Refiners announced plans in March to build a $150 million sugar refinery near the existing Colonial Sugars site in Gramercy. There is also the distinct possibility that Nucor Steel Corp. could build a $3 billion pig iron plant on a 4,000-acre swath of land in Convent. Although Nucor has not made an official announcement, the company recently purchased about 890 acres in the area to be used for the proposed facility.

Such developments may be just what the region needs to sustain some economic momentum in the face of a national recession.