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A Site Selection Web Exclusive, July 2023
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From Paris to Palatka: Why a Global Giant Picked a Small Town in Florida

A French conglomerate is investing $235 million to double gypsum capacity in Putnam County.

ONLINE INSIDER
CertainTeed’s gypsum factory in Palatka, Florida
Photo courtesy of Saint-Gobain North America

By RON STARNER
S

urging demand for housing products is doing more than creating long lines at The Home Depot. It’s prompting building materials manufacturers to ramp up expansion plans.

CertainTeed Interior Products Group, one of the world’s largest and oldest building products companies, announced July 6 that it will invest $235 million over two years to expand its gypsum wallboard factory by 400,000 sq. ft. just north of Palatka on U.S. Highway 17 in northeast Florida.

giant bass fish in palatka fl

Palatka, Florida, on the St. Johns River, is known as the bass fishing capital of America.

Photo by Ron Starner

A Malvern, Pennsylvania­-based subsidiary of French multinational giant Saint-Gobain, CertainTeed spent more than a year scouring sites in the southeastern U.S. before choosing this city of 10,574 people on the banks of the St. Johns River. Code-named Project Inverness, it’s a historic deal for Putnam County and its 74,731 residents.

Mark Litten, vice president of economic development for the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, says the county hasn’t seen a project like this in over a decade. “It is obviously a huge deal for the community,” he says. “These are primary manufacturing jobs in a community that has not had a lot of job creation in the past 10 years. This is only the fourth or fifth capital investment project of any type in the last two decades in Putnam County. This gives people opportunities.”

In addition to doubling its production capacity at the existing plant in Palatka, CertainTeed is creating more than 100 new jobs at an average annual wage of $65,000 plus benefits. A worker training grant from the state will ensure that the factory gets the help it needs, says Litten. “We are working with CareerSource Florida,” he says. “They approved a grant for this project to train new employees. That training will be done here at St. Johns River State College.”

Ben Borgmeyer, project manager for Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed, tells Site Selection that “the entire site selection process took just over a year. The project was conducted with the assistance of a site selector/economic development consultant,” he adds. “Another CertainTeed operation in the southern U.S. was considered for the investment” before the final selection was announced just after the Fourth of July holiday.

Leslie Rubin of Ruben Advisors Inc. in Indianapolis served as lead consultant. She tells Site Selection that the site search adhered to a “thorough due diligence checklist. Factors include, but are not limited to, available land for expansion, utility infrastructure, rail infrastructure, road access, geotech, quality of life, labor and economic assistance.”

A CertainTeed plant site in Nashville, Arkansas, was the other finalist for the project, she confirms.

la-manufacture-de-saint-gobain-vers-1780

Founded during the reign of King Louis XIV in October 1665, the Royal Manufactory of mirror glass developed a revolutionary procedure that involved casting glass on a metal table. It opened its main production site in a small village in the northeastern part of the kingdom from which it took its name: Saint-Gobain.

Illustration courtesy of Saint-Gobain

Clint O’Neal, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in Little Rock, says, “We’re familiar with the CertainTeed project. We had very little involvement and I’m not sure we had much of an opportunity on that one. They were considering expanding at the Nashville, Arkansas, location or Jacksonville, Florida [the Putnam County site]. We talked to the consultant, but we were never engaged with the company.”

Housing Shortage Plays a Role

The firm evaluated multiple factors before choosing Palatka, says Borgmeyer. “Our gypsum wallboard business continues to grow because the housing market in the U.S. remains strong, as can be seen with the surge in housing starts since May,” he notes. “With a current deficit of around 6.5 million housing units in the U.S., our gypsum wallboard solutions are needed to meet demand. By some analysis, we will need to build 17 million homes in the next decade to fill the deficit of the past decade.”

According to Grand View Research, the global market for gypsum board is expected to grow from $56 billion in 2023 to $127 billion in 2030.

Asked why his company picked Palatka, Borgmeyer says, “Putnam County’s strategic location near the Port of Jacksonville makes it an attractive location for a gypsum wallboard manufacturing facility, as it allows for the easy import and transportation of natural gypsum. In addition, Putnam County is a central location in a strong Southeastern market, and we have always had strong relationships with our county partners at the existing plant.”

“Putnam County’s strategic location near the Port of Jacksonville makes it an attractive location for a gypsum wallboard manufacturing facility, as it allows for the easy import and transportation of natural gypsum.”

Ben Borgmeyer, Project Manager, Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed

Litten adds that there were “many twists and turns with the project due to the unique location of the plant. Lafarge [a French company that is the world’s largest cement maker] is the original company that formed a joint-venture partnership with Seminole Electric, which owns about 3,000 acres in the county on the north end of the city. Seminole carved out acreage for Lafarge to build the current plant on site. That facility was then bought by Continental before CertainTeed bought it around 2008.”

County commissioners approved the deal with Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed on June 13. At that same meeting, commissioners approved a letter of intent to sell 140 acres in the Putnam County Business Park to an undisclosed buyer code-named Project Owl.

Litten adds that passage of a recent bill to scuttle Enterprise Florida did not disrupt the Saint-Gobain deal. “That did not create any anxiety with the company,” he notes. “The state just streamlined the economic development process by getting rid of the private-sector agency. It did not affect any of the incentive programs that the company could otherwise qualify for.”

Laura DiBella, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, says the state played a role in helping close the gap on the final piece of property needed. “The company needed some extra land from Seminole Electric to close the deal, and we helped make that happen.”

The project is being supported by more than $7 million in cash benefits and high-impact investment tax credits, including a State of Florida Capital Investment Tax Credit, a CareerSource Florida Quick Response Training Grant, a grant from Putnam County and a Clay Cooperative Economic Development Rate.

Georgia, Texas Land Deals Too

The Palatka factory, which currently employs more than 150 workers, began operations in 2001 and today ranks as one of the largest gypsum plants in the Southeast. The decision to double its production capacity was but the latest move in a string of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed plant expansion investments.

In June, Saint-Gobain bought Building Products of Canada to strengthen its portfolio of light and sustainable construction products in key Canadian markets. In May, Saint-Gobain cut the ribbon on its new CertainTeed Corners factory in Social Circle, Georgia. And in January, Saint-Gobain announced it would build a new roofing factory and distribution facility in Bryan, Texas.

Globally, the Paris-based Saint-Gobain employs 168,000 people in 75 countries and registered sales of $57 billion in 2022. Its CertainTeed subsidiary employs nearly 7,000 workers at 65 factories in the U.S. and Canada. In 2021, CertainTeed posted sales of $5.6 billion.

CertainTeed (originally called Roofing Manufacturing Co.) was founded in 1904 by George M. Brown in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was eventually acquired by Saint-Gobain in 1988.

Palatka, the seat of government of Putnam County, is about one hour south of Jacksonville and an hour east of Gainesville, Florida. The Palatka Micropolitan Statistical Area is included in the Jacksonville-St. Mary’s-Palatka, Florida-Georgia Combined Statistical Area.

Ron Starner
Executive Vice President of Conway, Inc.

Ron Starner

Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.

  



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