MANATEE -- Gov. Rick Scott ceremonially started the first plasma torch Thursday at Air Products and Chemical Inc.'s new Port Manatee facility, kicking off manufacturing work that will go round the clock seven days a week for the foreseeable future.
The Fortune 500 gas equipment maker officially opened the 300,000-square-foot natural gas heat exchanger manufacturing facility with Scott, state and local officials present to celebrate the 250 jobs Air Products has promised to create. The factory is one of two of its kind operated by the $10 billion company, and is the only one in Florida.
The event culminated a 2 1/2-year effort to woo Air Products to build the facility in the state. The company will produce machines that convert natural gas into liquid for transport and distribution. Air Products has built and sold about 100 exchangers during the past 40 years, according to company marketing materials.
Scott said the county and state offered the company unique, across-the-road access to a shipping port, and a
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good business climate.
"They chose Manatee County and they chose Florida because we have a great workforce, we have a great climate, we've got lower taxes, we have less regulation, and we like businesses and business people who have jobs," he said.
In bringing its production operation here, Air Products invested $56.8 million in its factory. The company spent $6 million on the 32 acres of land under the Inland Transport Street facility, according to Art George, Air Products spokesman.
The Air Products gas exchangers are roughly 180 feet long and weigh 500 tons. CEO John McGlade -- who lives part-time on Marco Island -- said being able to move the machines directly from the factory to ships in port for worldwide distribution gives the Florida factory an economic advantage over the inland factory the company operates near its Allentown, Pa., headquarters.
"Up there, we have the Blue Ridge Mountains in between," he said.
The main theme for the event was job creation. Fifty-three people are already working at the factory. The company will add positions over the next four years.
George said the jobs, on average, pay more than $45,000 a year.
Scott said Florida needs to offer financial incentives to attract companies like Air Products. He cited the Legislature's recent successful effort to abolish the sales tax on industrial machinery and equipment as one measure that helped attract the Pennsylvania-based company and that is expected to make the state a manufacturing haven.
"We've done all those things in the last three years and clearly it's working," Scott said, citing the state's 6.7-percent unemployment rate.
This latest business tax break will be paid for by individual taxpayers, said Florida Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope.
Asked how the state will recoup the costs of roads and ports from the manufacturers that use them, Swoope said people who have jobs related to new manufacturers coming to Florida will bolster state coffers by spending their wages on taxable consumer goods.
Manatee Technical Institute has contracted with Air Products to train specialized welders for the company. MTI Director Mary Cantrell said the school can train up to 10 workers a month for Air Products.
Job creation is expected go beyond those inside the factory. Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said the value of Air Products exports will drive area employment.
"Each $250,000 in export value is a full-time job in addition to the jobs here," he said.
Buqueras said the company has not shared the exact value of the products it will ship out of the port. One estimate that cropped up in discussions between port and company officials would have the company eventually shipping up to four exchangers each year.
The value of those shipments could approach $400 million, Buqueras said.
"If it were to be in that range, we would likely be the fastest-growing export port in Florida," he said.
It will take time for Air Products exports to reach the port.
Because of their size and complexity, the first of the giant, aluminum-cased machines will not roll off the assembly line for 18 to 24 months, according to company officials.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.