Back on Track

Back on Track

A couple years ago, miles of railroad were overgrown with trees springing up in between the tracks—almost symbolizing the loss of its original purpose and foreshadowing the derailing of a major player in Monroe’s economy.

Originally built by Pennsylvania Railroad to service Ormet—an aluminum smelting plant—more than a decade ago, the short rail was neglected by the company. However, Mike Filoni, vice president of sales and marketing for Carload Express Inc. (a short line railroad and transportation company), says the rail was kept in tact in case the plant decided to ever use it.

After searching for a railroad that could access gas producers within the Utica and Marcellus Shale Fields, Carload Express finally found the line it was looking for—the dormant short rail. The company decided to rehabilitate the short rail in December 2012. After an estimated $1.8 million investment, the short rail, renamed the Ohio Terminal Railway, commenced operations in April 2013.

Some believe the short rail’s reactivation will stimulate the local economic growth and development. Already more businesses are moving into Hannibal Industrial Park, which has access to the rail. “Those are businesses that heavily depend on railroad [transportation],” Filoni says. “From my standpoint, there’s only so much material that can be moved on the highway. [The companies] probably would not have come to the industrial park if it weren’t for the railroad.”

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But Monroe’s recovery derailed after Ormet, which was the largest employer in the county, closed its doors in October 2013. Ormet’s closing sent tremors through Monroe. Some felt the aftershock more than others, says Megan Ensinger, Hannibal native and an Ohio University 2013 alumna. “Many of my friends either worked for or had family who worked for Ormet and were out of work when the plant finally closed down,” Ensinger says. “Many people had to relocate to find work. It was a huge blow to the community as a whole, as it was the loss of an industry that most of the town’s value centered around.”

Monroe has about 14,500 residents and a civil labor force of around 5,300, according to Ohio’s Bureau of Labor Statistics as of Sept. 2014. While Ohio’s unemployment is at 5.7 percent state-wide, the unemployment rate in the county is at 10.1 percent, highest in the state. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the closing cost 700 people their jobs.

Because the county funds were dried up, three elementary schools in the area (Sardis, Hannibal and Powhatan) now feed into the same high school, Hannibal’s River High School. The restructuring was intended to streamline teaching and provide additional arts and specialized lessons. “It was the first time a levy had passed since before I was born,” Ensinger says. “But the funds quickly ran out and cuts were made to many programs like music, art and foreign language. The money just isn’t there, partly due to the loss of Ormet.”

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Many remain hopeful about the economic growth of the county, with outside investors looking to break into the natural gas industry. Monroe has become a recent hotbed for gas and oil production. “In the past year, there has been a major influx of companies in the oil and gas industry hoping to tap into the pockets of natural gas under Monroe County, which may be quite extensive,” Ensinger says.

One of those outside companies, Houston-based Appalachia Resins, leased 50 acres of land in Salem Township to build a cracker plant expected to begin operation in 2019, according to bizjournals.com. This plant would have the ability to take natural gas, like ethane, and make it usable for the plastic industry. Along with that, there is potential that the plant would produce added value for the Appalachian gas industry, and that’s where the Ohio Terminal Railway would come into the picture. “The proposed ethane cracker/polyethylene plant would also use rail for outbound shipments of polyethylene,” says Jason Hamman of the Monroe County Port Authority. Hamman adds that the plant has the potential to add an additional 150-200 jobs and spark a $1 billion capital investment.

Already, the natural gas and shale industry is considered a lifeline to the county’s economic future. Some residents in Monroe seek to reap the benefits of having an abundant source of natural gases. “Many gas wells have been installed,” Ensinger says. “One is only about a half mile from my parents’ house and some residents are receiving considerable sums in royalties from their mineral rights.”

Despite the economic difficulties the county experienced after Ormet’s closing, Ensinger believes that it’s full speed ahead for Monroe. “I think everyone is hoping that oil and gas will get the county back on its feet,” she says.

by Hannah Yang