Moving into the 21st century, the plastics industry is maintaining its historic hold on the Evansville area.
Between 2001 and 2004, plastics-related jobs grew more than 6 percent in the four-county area surrounding Evansville, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. By comparison, total manufacturing job growth in the four-county area was less than 3 percent in the same period.
In 2004, the area - consisting of Vanderburgh, Posey, Gibson and Warrick counties - had almost 5,900 plastics-related jobs, accounting for about 21 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the region.
``Some mold makers and similar businesses were having trouble for a while,'' said Jim Holderread, deputy director of Evansville Regional Economic Development Corp. ``But that wave seems to have passed us and the plastic industry as a whole seems to be doing better. A lot of shops seem busy.''
The area's plastics firms benefited from the 1999 opening of a massive Toyota Corp. plant in Princeton, Ind., north of Evansville in Gibson County. The plant produces Tundra pickup trucks, Sequoia sport utility vehicles and Sienna minivans and employs 5,000, plus another 1,500 contract workers.
``Toyota played a huge role and has had a very positive impact,'' Holderread said.
Area plastics firms also benefit from the presence of appliance maker Whirlpool Corp., which operates a 2,300-employee plant in Evansville.
The area's population has continued to grow. Although the population of Evansville dropped 4 percent to 121,000 between 1990 and 2000, the area surrounding Vanderburgh County saw its population climb by a similar number. Population in Mount Vernon and surrounding Posey County also grew 4 percent. The combined four-county area had about 280,000 residents in 2000.
Henderson and Webster counties in neighboring Kentucky also are home to a number of plastics firms. Employment numbers were unavailable, but the two counties experienced combined population growth of 3.5 percent during the 1990s, moving the resident count close to 60,000.
The executive team at Omni Plastics LLC took many factors into account when they decided to locate their firm in Evansville in 1999. Mark Thomas, Bill Veith and Greg Riedford each had extensive experience with area compounders and saw no need to leave the area to pursue their own fortune.
``We all were from here and had knowledge of the area,'' said Thomas, Omni's sales and marketing vice president. ``We knew that a lot of U.S. manufacturing is within 400 miles of Evansville. The skilled workforce was also a plus.''
Omni now employs 23 and recently installed its third extrusion line and added 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space. (See related story on Page 10.)
Evansville's plastics legacy dates back to 1935, when entrepreneur T.J. Morton launched one of North America's first injection molding businesses. Morton added injection molding to Hoosier Cardinal, a major supplier of refrigerator parts, by importing three injection machines from Germany in 1935-36, as well as buying the second-ever U.S.-made injection press.
Hoosier Cardinal then prospered during World War II by making plastic bubbles for gun turrets on bomber planes. Thatboom led many employees to spin off their own molding and compounding ventures in Evansville and nearby Mount Vernon.
Major plastics firms in the area now include GE Plastics, with 1,300 employees at a major resin-making and compounding plant in Mount Vernon, and top injection molder and packaging firm Berry Plastics Corp., with 1,000 workers in Evansville.
DSM Engineering Plastics also employs 300 at its compounding plant in Evansville. Plastic pipe and tubing maker Cresline Plastic Pipe Co. operates plants in Evansville and Henderson, Ky., but an employment total was unavailable.
The economic development corporation, known as Vision-E, frequently works with state economic officials, not only to retain existing business, but to draw new business as well, Holderread said.
Tools used to attract new businesses include traditional tax abatements, along with job training assistance and other tax incentives that can ease the transition of a firm moving to the Evansville area from another location.
Another asset for the Evansville plastics market is the plastics processing training program offered by Ivy Tech State College. Ivy Tech has offered the program at its Evansville location since 1992, but many of its students are hired by local firms before completing the two-year program, according to Ivy Tech spokeswoman Jennifer Nagy.
The program usually averages 30-35 students per semester, with enrollment up slightly for fall 2005, Nagy said. Students often apprentice with local companies such as Berry Plastics to learn the trade. Current courses offered include Introduction to Plastics, Plastics Materials and Testing, and Manufacturing of Plastic Products.