Wever fertilizer plant a topic at Fort Madison town hall meeting

Lee County's economic development took center stage at a town hall meeting in Fort Madison Tuesday.

Governor Terry Branstad took to the podium, and gave his full support toward a first-of-its-kind fertilizer plant in Wever, Iowa.

"It's not very often that a project of this magnitude comes along," Branstad said. "This is an investment that's going to be here for 50 years or more."

The Egypt-based Orascom Construction Industries says the plant will bring 160 permanent to Wever, along with 2,500 construction jobs during the next three years.

"Lee County, at 9.1percent unemployment, has the highest unemployment in the state. So, it's important that we work extra hard here in Lee County," Branstad said.

"The jobs that will benefit Iowa and the product and construction materials that will be purchased in this area will be great," Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion said.

Branstad says farmers are paying too must for imported nitrogen fertilizer. He says this plant will lower the costs to grow corn in for area farmers.

"Iowa farmers expect to see $740 million in annual savings once this plan is up in operations with the nitrogen fertilizer," Branstad said.

Some Iowa lawmakers criticize the plant and the $200 million in tax incentives Iowa gave to Orascom. This, while an even larger and more costly fertilizer plant in Sioux City has taken shape.

Iowa City State Sen. Joe Bolkcom went as far as calling the deal â??Iowaâ??s worst economic development deal ever."

Branstad lashed out at the project's critics saying the Democratic state senators are playing politics and that the tax breaks are meant to help create jobs and help farmers.

Advocates say it will greatly enhance the economic development of both the Lee County community and the state. They also say it will draw in other businesses that could benefit from the plant's waste materials.

"This is the most advanced technology in the world. They have a fertilizer company in the Netherlands. This is even more sophisticated than that. So, we're very pleased about this. This is the first one we've built in the United States in 25 years, but it's world standards," Steve Bisenius said.

Meanwhile, Orascom Construction Industries is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the US government.

The news broke in February that the company is contesting a lawsuit, filed in 2004, that says one of its company's subsidiaries defrauded U.S. taxpayers out of millions of dollars.

The Associated Press reported that Iowa officials knew nothing about that lawsuit until after it gave the company huge tax breaks to build in Lee County. Critics of the fertilizer plant say this raises questions about the research that went into the deal, calling it rushed and overly generous.