It seems like every state and city in the country targets plastics for economic development and can tout reasons why it's perfect for your next factory.
But rhetoric aside, who's really winning the fight for new factories?
Two former Rust Belt dinosaurs, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, are seeing the highest growth among the industry's heavyweight states, according to economic development data. Among states with midsize plastics industries, Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana fare best.
That's not to say those states necessarily have better economic development agencies. After all, things beyond the control of aggressive marketers, like being close to customers, often drives plastics processors' location decisions.
Also, the industry's rapid growth nationwide means that some growth is likely to come everybody's way, even if a state does nothing; the plastics industry grew 35 percent in sales and 25 percent in employment between 1994 and 1999, a time when employment throughout manufacturing was stagnant.
But Wisconsin and Pennsylvania grew quite a bit more than the industry average, according to data from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington.
Wisconsin's industry grew 58 percent in sales and 31 percent in employment, tops in both categories among the largest 12 plastics states. And Pennsylvania grew 47 percent in sales and 27 percent in employment. SPI Economic Report figures measure employment for all segments of the industry: resin, equipment and processing.
The first explanation typically offered by industry officials in both states is business-friendly governors, both Republicans: Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, who has been nominated to be President Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary, and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania.
"Probably for me the single biggest reason [for the growth] .... [is] the predictability and the stability of government under Tommy Thompson," said Craig Sauey, chairman of the trade association Wisconsin Plastics Valley.
"I think that rather than any one issue, such as workers' comp, it is more a lack of government interference, and people in government that are proactive," said Sauey, who is vice president of the Nordic Group of Cos. in Baraboo, Wis., and is a former chairman of Flambeau Corp., also of Baraboo.
For example, Thompson spoke at a gathering of industry officials in May 1999 and was asked for advice on work force development. He mentioned a state program for the printing industry that provided training from high school through a related college degree.
Thompson got his aides involved in extending that to plastics, and a program was launched five months later, according to former Teel Plastics Inc. President Tom Frank who was head of the Wisconsin Plastics Valley at the time.
Since then, the WPV has gotten a state grant of nearly $100,000 to hire two people. Their job is to expand the program to more high schools, and the group is working on getting a grant of several hundred thousand dollars to enhance efforts at two state universities and four technical schools, Sauey said.
In Pennsylvania, the state's industry also touts the business-oriented changes brought by its governor.
"I do think the key issue is Gov. Ridge," said Bruce Cleevely, vice president of True Precision Plastics Inc., in Lancaster, Pa. "He has worked hard to do a lot of things for industry, not just the plastics industry."
Ridge was instrumental in getting the state to stop assessing its mold use tax, according to Hoop Roche, president and chief executive officer of Erie Plastics Co. in Corry, Pa., and chairman of Plastics Pennsylvania, a statewide network.
"He couldn't outright tell the Department of Revenue what to do, but we felt we had a lot of moral support behind the scenes," Roche said.
Roche said Ridge also is "succeeding in reducing business taxes and in getting the [Department of Environmental Protection] under control. You feel like the state will stand behind you."
Both Ridge and Thompson are part of a group of governors who have brought economic development under their immediate control, said John Boyd, president of Boyd Co. Inc., a Princeton, N.J., site selection firm. They have reduced workers' compensation, unemployment and corporate taxes, and made state government operate more business-friendly, he said.
"They carry the message well because they understand there is more to it than just cutting taxes," said Boyd.
Roche said Pennsylvania has a strong educational system, particularly at the university level, where two of the nation's four accredited plastics technology degree programs reside.
And the state's former Rust Belt economy means it is still easier to find a labor force there than in other parts of the country, Roche said.
Officials in both states say they target plastics, among a handful of industries, and have economic development agencies that do the usual — attend trade shows and send out mailers.
"Most states have pretty much the same economic development tools," said Brent Vernon, economic development specialist in plastics in the Pennsylvania state government.
Industry officials said some of their success, particularly in getting government help, stems from the strong state-level plastics groups in both places.
But that is not a trait generally shared by the three states showing strong growth among those with midsize plastics industries.
Louisiana saw its sales grow a whopping 73 percent, but its employment base is much smaller and grew just 31 percent, suggesting that those numbers reflect growth in the capital-intensive resin manufacturing industry, not among processors and equipment suppliers.
Arkansas and Virginia each grew a little more than 54 percent in sales and 37 percent in employment.
SPI has been organizing meetings in Virginia on work-force development, partly because the state government is waking up to the size of the industry there, said Richard Sturgis, director of SPI's southern region office in Greenville, S.C.
A plastics cluster formed in the Winchester, Va., area in March 1999 to boost training, said Gary Edwards, industry coordinator with the Winchester/ Frederick County Economic Development Commission in Winchester. Plastics is the largest industry in the area, employing 4,000, he said.
The cluster organized meetings with state education officials and, with SPI's help, got the local community college to offer more courses in plastics and make other improvements in curriculum, he said.