Paper plant helping shape economy in Rogers County: ‘It’s just unbelievable’

March 28, 2022


Read the full article on Tulsa World’s website here.

INOLA – What used to be a place to pasture cattle and harvest hay has been transformed into an economic field of dreams in Rogers County.

Italy-based tissue maker Sofidel began operations in 2020 on a privately owned tract inside the Port of Inola, about 20 miles east of Tulsa. The 1.8-million-square-foot factory now employs 380 people, with plans to increase that number to 450 by 2023.

It is Sofidel’s sixth plant in North America and only its second (Las Vegas is the other) west of the Mississippi River.

“You need to have people. You have to have water, and you have to have utilities,” site manager Jose Zarandona said of the company’s choosing Rogers County. “And you have to be close to roads, trains. That’s why we are here.”

Sofidel’s presence has benefited the state.

Since starting a small operation in Tulsa in 2014, the company has invested more than $450 million in Oklahoma. The salary for its hourly operations employees in Inola ranges from $45,000 to $65,000, Zarandona said.

“Almost 40% of the investment that we have made in the United States has been made in Oklahoma,” said Fabio Vitali, Sofidel America’s vice president of marketing.

Sofidel was awarded $1.3 million from Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund in 2017. The company also is receiving consecutive, five-year tax abatements locally and from the state, said Andrew Ralston, who heads economic development for Tulsa Ports (Catoosa and Inola).

Those incentives, however, will yield dividends for the area in coming years.

When the local abatement is exhausted in January 2026 — Sofidel’s first full year of operations was 2021 — acreage that used to provide Inola Public Schools just more than $1,000 annually in property tax revenue will be churning out $2.3 million per year for IPS, District 3 Rogers County Commissioner Ron Burrows said.

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “For me, the biggest impact was that right there.”

The process

The Sofidel plot has a long history.

The factory sits on 240 acres formerly owned by Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, which nearly 50 years ago targeted the site for a Black Fox nuclear power plant, plans for which ultimately fell through.

In 2019, PSO transferred about 2,000 acres around the Sofidel site to the City of Tulsa-Rogers County Port Authority for future development.

The manufacturing facility in Inola incorporates both a paper mill — where pulp is transformed into paper — and a converting plant, which produces the finished product.

The facility is designed to use a pond, originally built for the proposed nuclear plant, as a water sedimentation basin for making paper. It also has water intake from the Verdigris River, located about 1.5 miles away.

“The major thing that we buy are fibers,” said Vitali, who, along with Zarandona, recently led the Tulsa World on a tour of the plant.

“The fiber is put into the machines. You combine that with water and create big reels, like maybe 10 feet. From these big reels, you transform them. This is a mechanical process.”

The sixth-largest paper manufacturer in the United States, Sofidel produces 340,000 metric tons of product annually in America. Among its customers are Amazon, Costco, Aldi, Walmart and Trader Joe’s, Vitali said.

“The strategy overall for a paper company is trying to get close to consumption,” he said. “Where the demographic is, you want to have a plant. You want to reduce the transportation as much as you can and create scale.”

Sofidel’s production model is designed to foster the transition to an economy with a low-carbon impact and reduced consumption of natural resources.

Since 2013, it has reduced its plastic packaging by 40%, and since 2018, Sofidel has seen a 40% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from its manufacturing process and suppliers’ pulping process per ton of paper.

“For every tree that is cut, there are three trees that are planted,” Vitali said.

A look ahead

Future economic development opportunities abound for the Port of Inola and Sofidel, particularly with the introduction of new rail to the area.

The roughly $12 million Inola rail project will connect the Union Pacific main line to Sofidel and the industrial park. Anticipated to start in September and be completed in nine months, it will allow the manufacturer to accept inbound raw materials and potentially transfer intermediary products such as parent, or jumbo, reels to other facilities across the country, Ralston said.

“Sofidel really helped define that property as an industrial park and brought a lot of the utility infrastructure in that wasn’t there,” he said. “They are the impetus for us building rail now instead of later.

“That keystone tenant really helps bring all of the things that make the park attractive to other industries for location. … It’s a great selling point.”

Railroads account for roughly 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles) — more than any other mode of transportation — but only 1.9% of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“We will start to see this growth happen, and it will continue and build momentum over years,” Burrows said. “We’re seeing that now.

“Industrial parks are no different than big, retail shopping centers. Once you have an anchor, once you have someone as large as they are established, it just makes it that much easier to expand the infrastructure for the next big enterprise.”

Read the full article on Tulsa World’s website here.