Hancock one of nation's most industrialized counties

Workers and guests attend the official opening of Aleris’ $400 million expansion at its Lewisport Rolling Mill in 2017.

In August 1954, Murray Tile Co. of Cloverport announced plans to build a plant in Lewisport that would employ 40 to 50 people making floor tile.

That was the foundation for what would become one of the most industrialized counties in America.

That plant, now Dal-Tile, is closing this summer after 66 years.

But Hancock County is still a major industrial area.

Mike Baker, director of the Hancock County Industrial Foundation, said today the county has 12 manufacturing facilities, a number of trucking companies and smaller companies that supply the larger ones.

He said, “A few years ago, we were the No. 2 county in the country in per capita manufacturing. No. 1 was a county in Alaska where everybody was in the fishing industry.”

The U.S. Census Bureau says there are 121 businesses in Hancock County with a payroll of $207.8 million in 2018.

Hancock has about 8,800 people and a workforce of 3,925.

“Our percentage of manufacturing jobs today is in the high 50s to low 60s (percentage),” Baker said. “Seventy-two to 73% of every payroll dollar here is in manufacturing. For a small rural county, that’s a lot of manufacturing.”

The county touts its flat land along the Ohio River in trying to attract jobs.

“The river is still very important, but a high percentage of goods leave by truck now,” Baker said.

He said, “38% to 40%% of those employed in manufacturing live in Hancock County. The rest come from other counties like Daviess.”

“We’re still trying to get U.S. 60 four lanes all the way from Owensboro — with as much commuter traffic and trucking as we have,” Baker said. “Ten years ago, Aleris had 60 trucks a day leaving the plant. There’s a lot more today.”

In February, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority approved $2 million to help Envision Modular of Owensboro put together a

$25 million project in Hancock County.

The new company — owned by Matt Hayden, the late Jack Wells and Fahr Juneja — will manufacture steel units for commercial construction that can be assembled on building sites.

That includes hotels, apartments, office buildings and government housing.

The company, located in the 350,000-square-foot former Alcoa facility, will eventually employ about 85 people with an average pay of $26 an hour including benefits, it said.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development lists seven industrial sites available in Hancock County today — ranging from 1,020 acres to 16.4 acres.

The county’s surge to become a top manufacturing area began in the early 1960s when Daviess County officials realized that Hancock County had more land suitable for large industries.

And a regional economy was born.

In 1962, the Owensboro-Daviess County Industrial Foundation donated $25,000 to the Hancock County Industrial Association to help buy land for the planned Harvey Aluminum plant near Lewisport.

The plant has gone through a variety of ownerships since then.

It was Aleris International until earlier this year, when Novelis, the world leader in aluminum rolling and recycling, paid $2.6 billion for Aleris.

Its roughly 1,000 workers make it Hancock County’s largest employer, Baker said.

Century Aluminum ranks second with about 500.

Other companies with 100 or more employees include Domtar, 400; Southwire, 300; and Pre-Coat Metals, 100.

In 2017, Aleris opened a $400 million expansion at its Lewisport aluminum mill, creating 100 jobs.

Plans called for the Lewisport mill to produce more than 200,000 tons of aluminum a year for five to seven automobile companies.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that last year, the average weekly wage in Hancock County was $1,479.

That’s above the national average of $1,184, the state average of $920 and Daviess County’s average of $823.

Hancock County — and the region — owes part of its industrial success to former Owensboro Mayor J.R. Miller, who was instrumental in the early 1960s in creating Big Rivers Electric Corp. to generate cheap electricity to lure industry to western Kentucky.

Harvey Aluminum was being courted for Hancock County.

But it couldn’t agree on an electric rate with Kentucky Utilities.

So, Miller offered to supply the power the company needed at the rate it wanted through Big Rivers.

Harvey officials broke ground on the region’s first aluminum plant on a 1,000-acre site east of Lewisport in July 1964 and opened a $50 million rolling mill there on Aug. 12, 1966.

Today, it’s the Novelis plant.

Big Rivers built a $45 million power plant in Hancock County to handle the new demands.

That was the beginning of the county’s $200 million industrial growth spurt and thousands of jobs for area residents.

A few years later, when National-Southwire Aluminum wanted to build a mill in Hancock County, Miller and Big Rivers worked out a deal with the Rural Electrification Administration for a $53 million loan.

In the years that followed, Hancock County, like most places, has seen ups and downs with its economy.

Factories have opened and factories have closed.

This year, Dal-Tile, a subsidiary of Mohawk Industries of Calhoun, Georgia, announced that it would close its Lewisport facility and lay off 67 employees permanently.

The Aleris rolling mill in Lewisport was closed for two weeks in April by the coronavirus and had to close again for two weeks in May because automotive customers delayed the restart of their production lines.

But the county still remains a manufacturing leader for Kentucky and the nation.

Keith Lawrence 270-691-7301 klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

Keith Lawrence 270-691-7301

klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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