10 News Investigates: $700 million Wythe County development set to bring in 2,500 jobs put on hold

The future of Blue Star NBR’s glove manufacturing facilities are in limbo with funding uncertain

WYTHE COUNTY, Va. – During the height of the pandemic, personal protective equipment, or PPE, was critical to the health of Americans. This prompted the United States government to fund projects to make PPE domestically.

“Just on nitrile gloves, China has increased their market share from about selling 5% to 7% of the gloves we buy, now they’re at 45% and they’re actively trying to put Malaysia out of business,” said Scott Maier, the CEO of Blue Star NBR, a new manufacturing company.

With the goal of not being dependent on the global supply chain, Maier set out to pick a location to build a plant to make rubber gloves.

Wytheville, a town known for its stunning scenery and distinct downtown, was selected to be the new home of this massive glove manufacturing facility. The price tag of such a venture? More than $700 million.

“We could really, really benefit from having a plant like that. I mean we love our locals, our regulars, but to have something like this come to Wytheville, it would impact small businesses in a very very huge way,” said Amy Osborne, who is a manager at The Grind, a coffee shop and eatery in downtown Wytheville.

In 2021, Governor Ralph Northam was on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony of Blue Star NBR.

“That is a lot of money coming in to anywhere, but especially here in Wythe County,” said Northam at the time.

It was said to be the world’s first vertically integrated nitrile glove manufacturing campus, providing important PPE to the healthcare industry and beyond – a game-changer for the area.

“There were only a handful of areas in the country that had all the utility infrastructure, water access, land that was ready to build upon almost day one,” said Maier.

The hope was for production to start in late 2022, but that was not the case. Now, the site at Progress Park in Wythe County sits quietly.

It was touted as a $700 million investment, expected to bring in more than 2,500 new jobs. But now the future of the project depends on funding.

Maier said the project has two phases: a facility to make the raw material for the gloves, and plants to produce the gloves themselves. He said phase one is complete.

“Everything we need to make the raw material is built, it’s ready to go, it just needs to be hooked up to the utility infrastructure, hook it up to electric, gas, water, wastewater. And then we would have to hire and train a staff of about 100 people,” he added.

The state-of-the-art facility is just the beginning. Maier said right now, they only have two employees, far off from the long-term goal of 2,500, but the project is in limbo.

Maier said Blue Star was supposed to get grant money from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, or DFC, a government agency that invests in development projects.

“We were just waiting for DFC to finish the other half of the funding, unfortunately, their program had a two-year charter and we got a letter in December of ‘21, that they would not be able to get a package to us when their package expired in March of ‘22,” Maier explained.

The price tag to get the project back on track and running?

“To finish the NBR facility and then to build our first factory, we need about $230 million.”

That would put the finishing touches on phase one, and complete phase two. After the lending letdown, Maier said Plan B – finding $230 million elsewhere – hasn’t been easy.

“DFC is out, we’re trying to get the federal government to finish what it started. We’ve tried to look for private capital but unfortunately, the federal government has really crowded out that industry,” Maier said.

Now, the high hopes for local jobs by this glove manufacturing company in the New River Valley are at stake, and time is running out.

“It’s a facility that doesn’t have any revenue. So, we have a lot of expenses and we don’t have any income coming in to offset any of it. We’ve been doing it for six months and we can’t do it much longer, unfortunately.”

While Maier continues to seek options to complete this massive project and kickstart hundreds of new jobs, the future economic growth in Wytheville hangs in the balance.

“It was kind of disappointing that it hasn’t happened yet and we do hold out hope. Hopefully, we’ll get there because Wytheville could definitely use it,” Osborne said.

A potential pioneer for PPE, leaving Wytheville in waiting

10 News reached out to the DFC, and a spokesperson said Blue Star voluntarily withdrew their application for the grant back in December of 2021.

However, Maier claims that is not the case, and provided a letter from the DFC dated April 2022 that said the Executive Order which would allow this grant to happen had expired and the application would subsequently be closed.

10 News is sorting out the details of this project, the funding, and its future and will continue to report the latest information.

About the Author

Alyssa Rae grew up in Roanoke and graduated from Virginia Tech. An avid sports fan, she spent her first 8 years in TV as a sports anchor and reporter.

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