Controversial choices: Debating the Pratt & Whitney project

Raytheon protest on Pack Square
JUST SAY NO: The local chapter of Veterans for Peace is among a handful of local groups opposing a jet engine components plant in South Asheville planned by Pratt & Whitney, a division of Raytheon Technologies. About 30 people protested against the proposal downtown in December. Photo by Mark Barrett

Not many people would disagree that one of the jobs of Buncombe County government is improving the economic prospects of its citizens.

But there is disagreement over what steps the county should take toward that goal — and the morality of whether one of those steps should be luring a Pratt & Whitney manufacturing plant to South Asheville. The facility will employ as many as 800 people making jet engine components, about a fifth of which will go toward military uses.

County commissioners and other supporters say the jobs, paying an average of $68,000 a year, will provide opportunities for workers to improve their standards of living. Critics say those wages are not worth the moral cost: bolstering a military-industrial complex that causes deaths half a world away and eats up government funds better spent on other needs.

In a county chronically concerned about the disconnect between high housing costs and low wages, especially in the tourism sector, there are usually few objections to economic development projects expected to pay significantly more than the county’s average weekly wage of $916. (Pratt & Whitney’s promised average wage works out to about $1,308 a week.) Other than a few complaints about the morality of alcohol when New Belgium Brewing announced its Asheville brewery in 2012, the ethics of businesses lured here by industrial recruiters typically have not been a big topic of debate.

The Pratt & Whitney project is different. Some of the jet engines the company makes will end up on warplanes used to project American power around the globe. And the company is a division of Raytheon Technologies, a Massachusetts-based firm that is one of the United States’ largest weapons suppliers.

Pratt & Whitney says about 80% of the turbine airfoils to be made at the plant, planned for land to the northeast of the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the French Broad River, will go to nonmilitary uses, and parent company Raytheon sells to both civilian and military customers. But critics say the project’s connection to the military is too close for comfort.

“I think it is unethical to make military equipment, period,” says Victoria Estes, a member of Reject Raytheon Asheville. The local group, which seeks to block the plan, says Buncombe commissioners “have blood on their hands” because of their unanimous approval of a package of up to $27 million in incentives for the company on Nov. 22.

Money moves

The incentive deal is structured so that the county’s payments will be covered by the additional property tax to be paid by Pratt & Whitney, a figure that would rise to $2.8 million a year by 2030 at the current tax rate if projections prove accurate. The exact amount the company will get will depend on how many jobs it creates and how much it invests in the plant.

Brownie Newman, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, says that while he would like to see the United States spend less on its military, that decision is not the commissioners’ to make. Rejecting the plant would have no “direct bearing” on military spending, he said, while accepting it would address concerns about economic inequality in Buncombe County.

“Our community is changing into a place where only the wealthy are able to make a decent life for themselves. Poor people and the working poor are trapped in a service-oriented economy where the wages are low and the cost of living is high,” he said during the board’s Nov. 22 meeting.

“The positive impact this will have on many people’s lives is very significant,” Newman continued, citing the company’s high wages and spillover effects for other parts of the local economy.

Several other companies in Buncombe County make products for defense use, said Clark Duncan, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County. They include parachute maker Mills Manufacturing in Woodfin, electrical components makers Kearfott in Black Mountain and TE Connectivity in Fairview.

Approval of the incentives package was probably the major hurdle facing the Pratt & Whitney project, but a steady drip of critical letters to the editor and other public comments has continued since the board’s November decision. That opposition appears to be well short of the numbers that would be needed to persuade commissioners to change course. Even leading critic Gerry Werhan, a West Asheville resident who leads the local Veterans for Peace chapter, says, “In my heart of hearts, I think it’s a done deal.”

Moral matter

Projects like the Pratt & Whitney plant raise ethical questions that don’t necessarily have black-and-white answers, says ethicist Mark Douglas, who has studied and written about issues related to the military and whether war can be ethical. He is a professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, a school in Decatur, Ga., affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

“It’s very difficult to set generalizable rules,” he says.

Some mainline Protestant denominations will not invest their pension funds in arms makers like Raytheon, Douglas continues. Their policies represent a belief that the U.S. should set better spending priorities, he says, not a judgment that it is wrong to make weapons.

Someone could favor having a strong defense but oppose the production of particular weapons or their sale to foreign governments, Douglas says. Saying no one should build weapons at all implies that it is immoral to have any kind of national defense — or at least one in which soldiers have anything to fight with besides their bare hands — a position few people would endorse.

Douglas says it’s perfectly legitimate for government officials and ordinary citizens to weigh the economic benefits of a project like the Pratt & Whitney plant against the degree to which it entangles an area with the military-industrial complex.

Plant supporters say its benefits will be considerable. If all 800 jobs at the plant materialize, another 183 will result from products and services Pratt & Whitney will buy from local companies, and 281 will result from increased spending in the region created by the company’s local annual payroll of nearly $55 million, says Tim Love, Buncombe County’s economic development director.

The lowest-paying jobs will pay $55,000 a year, and over 100 workers will get $112,000 annual salaries, according to Love’s figures. Buncombe officials say those wages will have ripple effects in a county where average wages are 23% below the national average and 12% lower than the statewide figure.

“Because the wages are well above what is the norm here in Buncombe County, it is going to force other employers to step up and look at how much they are paying those who are already living and working here,” says Commissioner Amanda Edwards.

Arms or schools?

Although opponents have raised many issues over the plant, including its potential contributions to climate change and impact on views from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, concerns over the morality of weapons production lie at the heart of their objections.

Candler resident Roger Ehrlich says Pratt & Whitney’s presence in Buncombe County will make it harder for local officials to support reducing the nation’s military spending. That category makes up about 16% of the federal budget, says the Washington-based nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At $732 billion in fiscal year 2019, U.S. defense spending was far and away the most of any nation and exceeded the combined total of the next 10 nations’ defense budgets, according to the New York-based Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which advocates for better budget practices.

Werhan with Veterans for Peace puts the argument this way: “Every missile made represents another school that doesn’t get built.”

Reject Raytheon members decry American involvement in overseas conflicts and weapon sales made by Raytheon and other U.S. companies to foreign governments. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a civil war in Yemen, are a particular sticking point.

Groups such as Amnesty International say Saudi airstrikes have caused inordinate civilian deaths, and the United Nations and other organizations say the malnutrition and health issues caused by the conflict make it among the world’s worst humanitarian crises. With bipartisan support, Congress passed legislation in 2019 to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to concerns about its actions in Yemen, but departing President Donald Trump vetoed the measure, arguing the sales help counter Iranian influence.

Raytheon, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment by deadline for this article, has sold arms to the Saudis. Sales of military products to foreign governments made up 7.6% of its total sales during the first nine months of 2020 and 3.2% during the same period in 2019, the company’s most recent quarterly report says. Raytheon makes a wide variety of aerospace products for nonmilitary use, such as satellite parts and aircraft control systems, in addition to arms manufacturing.

Whether anything made at the South Asheville plant, where production is to begin in late 2022, will play a role in the Yemeni conflict is hard to predict. Some Pratt & Whitney jet engines have been sold to Boeing, which has in turn sold warplanes to Saudi Arabia, but the company says 80% of the local plant’s production will end up on civilian cargo jets, passenger airliners and other aircraft. Arms sales to foreign governments require federal approval, and the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is expected to be less supportive of the Saudis’ involvement in Yemen.

Werhan said direct and indirect U.S. involvement in overseas situations like the Yemeni civil war is the main reason he opposes the Pratt & Whitney plant.

“Yes, we should defend ourselves, but defend the continental United States. There’s no need to go on military adventures around the world,” he said.

Here or there

Pratt and Whitney employees with turbine
ECONOMIC ENGINE: As many as 800 people could be employed at a Pratt & Whitney plant in South Asheville in jobs somewhat similar to those at the company’s facility in Middletown, Conn., shown here. Photo courtesy of Pratt & Whitney

People involved in bringing Pratt & Whitney here say, in essence, that there is no “Good Jobs R Us” store where the county can simply pick up hundreds of jobs making solar panels or other renewable energy equipment and bring them home.

“These projects … don’t grow on trees. They’re not there for the taking,” Duncan said.

The exact number of communities competing with Buncombe County for the Pratt & Whitney plant remains unknown, but Love says the company considered a dozen sites in North Carolina and looked at offers from other states as well. Local officials had to sign a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting them from discussing Pratt & Whitney’s plans until the company’s decision to come to Buncombe County was announced, he says.

Some critics say the county should have extracted a pledge from Pratt & Whitney preventing it from selling the plant’s products for overseas use or to the military. Love says those sorts of restrictions would remove the county from the competition for a project like the Pratt & Whitney plant: “Any company would have just frankly said no.”

Newman said at the Nov. 22 meeting that the county’s choice was simply whether to welcome Pratt & Whitney or not.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a long list of many different manufacturing companies who all want to locate in Western North Carolina,” he said. “Either this project will locate here or it will locate somewhere else.”


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24 thoughts on “Controversial choices: Debating the Pratt & Whitney project

  1. North Asheville

    Good article by Mr. Barrett, explaining clearly and fully the various views on this matter.

    • Lidya Gongage

      Do this people realize that by having a strong military we are actually promoting stability around the World? We are the peace makers. Think about it. During the 4 yrs of Trump we have diminished our forces in the Middle East , no attacks and no new wars.
      We better watch out for China which has already taken over in Latin America

  2. Austin J Hill

    So 800 Jobs…I can’t help but wonder how many people in the area are qualified to build jet engines or perform any of the ancillary jobs…in other words: how many people from the area will actually be hired, and how many will be imported or will apply for the jobs and move here?

    • Scott

      I have had this conversation with a few friends who are still in Asheville.
      I have not lived in Asheville since 1990 but have close family and friends still there. One friend says “we have skilled people in the area”. My reply is yes, your machinist and other skilled laborers are going to get a very good bump. There are jobs that “unskilled” labor can do and can be taught rather fast.
      The other percentage will be required is the “specific skill sets”. Engineers, Aviation Quality inspectors, Non Destructive inspection are a few. Do not forget the mention of “spill over jobs and spending”.
      Twenty years in the industry and I can tell everyone, there are many ancillary jobs that will need to be filled. I’ll toss a few out off the top of my head: Physical plant security, housekeeping / janitorial, land maintenance, vending and food services. The list is big. The trickle down is substantial.
      Increase disposable cash, and everyone benefits.
      I have been in the aircraft industry since 2010 upon my exit from naval aviation. I worked as an aircraft mechanic / metal smith for 20 years and the last 12 of them as a level 2 Non Destructive Inspector. After that I have worked for Bell Helicopter, DynCorp/Raytheon at Sheppard AFB TX and Boeing.
      There is constantly a national shortage of qualified Level II techs. Finding them in the local area will be a challenge.
      I hope the short sighted will take off the blinders. I am hoping to come home with the advent of the plant moving here. I may be “out of town” but Asheville is where my family is and I find the opportunity to come back very inviting.
      there ASAP.

      • WNC

        Takes more water to lift a ship than a bass boat. No surprise there.
        No point spending pages of space to discuss the perceived tipping point between evidence and strong evidence.

      • scott

        Asheville is going to fold in on its self with all the homeless, and huge disparity in the almost non existent middle class, which are mostly just lucky to be in that range.
        Houses averaging 400K to 500K and a very low minimum wage and sub par average wages.

        I cannot believe you have this attitude.

        Time to look around and see things as they truly are.

    • indy499

      Did you have to go all the way back to 2004 to find something that you thought support your erroneous view? I thought you were gone. Still clueless apparently.

  3. bsummers

    Gosh, for some reason, Kearfott in Black Mountain has taken down the “military aircraft” page on their website. No matter. Nothing ever really disappears:

    Here’s the military aircraft that use Kearfott components. Some big names there…

    Aero L-159 Alca (Honeywell/ITEC F124 Turbofan)
    Airbus Helicopters AS332 Super Puma
    AgustaWestland AW101 (EH101) Merlin
    AgustaWestland AW109
    Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master (Honeywell/ITEC F124 Turbofan)
    BAE Systems Hawk
    Bell AH-1 Cobra
    Bell Helicopter 212
    Bell Helicopter 412
    Bell UH-1 Huey Helicopter
    Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey
    Boeing AH-64D/E Apache
    Boeing C-17 Globemaster
    Boeing C-40 Clipper
    Boeing CH-47 Chinook
    Boeing E-3D Sentry
    Boeing E-4B
    Boeing E-767
    Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle
    Boeing F/A-18 Hornet
    Boeing KC-46
    Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker
    Boeing KC-767
    Boeing P-8 Poseidon
    Boeing VC-25 (Air Force One)
    Boeing X-45 (Honeywell/ITEC F124 Turbofan)
    Boeing YC-14
    Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet
    Elbit Systems Hermes 450/900
    Fuji T-7
    KAI KT-1 Woongbi
    Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
    Lockheed C-130 Hercules
    Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk
    Lockheed L-188 Electra
    Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon
    Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
    Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
    Lockheed P-3 Orion
    McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
    McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender
    North American F-100 Super Sabre
    Northrop Grumman E-10 MC2A
    Northrop Grumman EQ-4 Global Hawk (BACN)
    Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton
    Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout
    Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk
    Northrop T-38 Talon
    Optionally-Piloted Helicopter (OPH)
    Sikorsky S-70C Firehawk Helicopter
    Sikorsky UH-60 BLACK HAWK Helicopter

  4. blueridgeguvnor

    Asheville is anti jobs. You don’t want Hotels, Amazon, now high paying manufacturing. Then you complain about only having low paying service industry jobs.

    On top of that, anti police.

    It’s a toxic recipe that will keep the economy suppressed here until people wake up

    • Scott

      THIS is just total ignorance.
      The military industrial complex supports more economy’s in places that would have no jobs at all. I grew up in Asheville as a teen to adult. Left for the military at 21. Do you like having a population that is barely making a decent wage and relying totally on tourism?
      Time to smell the coffee. OH wait everyone can live on a Barista’s, basket weavers, or 7/11 wage!

  5. MBMac

    Thank you for the article & helping to inform us all in the greater Asheville & Western North Carolina area about this project and issues raised regarding the Pratt & Whitney manufacturing plant coming to the area. Honestly, I was not fully aware of this, do not know if I somehow missed the story or if it just came about recently. I’ve read the article, been thinking about it and had some thoughts and questions that may or may not have been asked/answered for all of us in the area. If they have already been asked/answered, I’d appreciate being directed to any information, articles & websites… I agree 100 % – even 1,000 % ! that of course, we do need opportunities for good paying jobs in our area. It is needed & would improve the lives of so many. Would love to see innovative, high paying businesses & manufacturer offer a great place to work here with high wages. After reading the article, I had some thoughts & questions regarding this probable project..1) Were there any public hearings and opportunity for public input? I realize the pandemic has challenged things like that, but it would be important for our citizens to be fully informed & offer input. 2) Would the jobs be for local residents or will many people be transferred here & jobs not fully be available to locals? 3) I understand it will be near Hwy 191, right near the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC Arboretum & the French Broad River. Do we know what kinds of wastes will be generated from a possible airplane turbine, parts manufacturing plant? Will there be hazardous waste? Heavy metals, chemicals, hopefully not anything radioactive? What is the history of waste production from other Pratt & Whitney manufacturing plants? Would waste be stored on site, shipped away, get into the French Broad River? Or maybe very little waste? The possibility of any waste leaching/getting into groundwater, wells, the French Broad River would be most alarming to me & seems would have impacts on everyone, including all businesses downstream & residents living downstream. 4) Would the jobs generated be looking into the future with probable assurance of a continued need for products produced? Are the products produced there something future looking & able to continue to be needed, thereby giving job security to workers? . 5) There is the stated benefit that larger tax revenues would be generated for the area. If so that is great. Although the same was said when the nonprofit Mission Hospital system was sold to for profit HCA a few years ago & I recall that an article here on Mtn Express March 27, 2019, said the tax revenues were half what was expected, 2.5 million of 5 million that had been projected, leaving a budget shortfall . Just thinking out loud.. 6) Lastly, is the plant congruous with the jewel of an area where we are so fortunate to live? Will it enhance or detract from this spectacular place & businesses & residents already here?. Again, if some of these questions/answers have already been addressed, I will look forward to catching up on responses. I felt I had to pen my thoughts & not miss the opportunity to do so. Thank you. Respectfully, Mary Beth Mackley, Asheville, NC

    • Mark Barrett

      Ms. Mackley,
      Quite a bit has been written about this project. I’ll answer your questions briefly and I encourage you to do some Googling to find other stories.

      1. County commissioners held a public hearing in November.

      2. A-B Tech is building a 20,000-square-foot center near the plant to train locals to work there. I don’t think there is anything to prevent people from moving here to take the training, or from workers at other Pratt & Whitney facilities from transferring here. However, if the jobs were all to be filled by current P&W workers, there would probably be no need for the training center.

      3. I don’t have comprehensive information on what kind of waste will be generated. There’s been no mention of anything radioactive that I’m aware of.

      4. The plant’s future will most likely be tied to demand for jet engines, particularly more fuel efficient ones.

      5. You haven’t actually asked a question here.

      6. There are other large manufacturing plants in Buncombe County that are somewhat similar, but whether the Pratt & Whitney plant is “congruous” with this area is a judgment people will have to make for themselves.

      I hope this helps.

    • Scott

      “Do we know what kinds of wastes will be generated from a possible airplane turbine, parts manufacturing plant? Will there be hazardous waste? Heavy metals, chemicals, hopefully not anything radioactive?”
      My first comment. Please do homework before showing how much you really do not know. This is not to be mean. It would inform you and not require the polite people to explain it.
      My second comment:
      In short. NO. No fear of “radiation”. Aviation plants primarily utilize X-Ray. Hospitals and general construction use “Isotopes” – Live source radiation. How do you think the Chemotherapy works? It is isotope radiation administered by a liquid base. (Iodine-131, Strontium-89 and Samarium-153, Radium-223 are the most common). Do you worry about them?
      Third comment:
      What about your local Painter or garage? They have a ton of hazardous waste. How about EATON and the other bigger plants. I can guarantee that they produce plenty of waste.
      I think I have made my point.
      The “little private area of WNC” needs to get educated on THE BIG PICTURE.

  6. rl

    I find this constant complaining very wearisome. This area needs well paying jobs with a reputable company- and including benefits such as health insurance. Why must we always hear: public hearings ( why, so the nay sayers can destroy opportunities?). Environmental damage ( I assure you Raytheon does the homework) military equipment: people- there will be military equipment built from now on! Your weak tree hugging efforts will not stop it; rather, it continues to present Asheville as a city of weirdos rather than an city eager for honest, well paying jobs. The complexity of the jobs? They are manufacturing- not brain surgery. Yes, some top level and higher skilled engineers etc may be needed but the majority will be manufacturing. Let’s stop the whining and get people to work and off welfare!

  7. Paul Curtin

    You can’t have it both ways. Either you want better paying jobs to raise living standards or you don’t. There are always tradeoffs that come with any development. That plant will be built somewhere and if it’s turned away from Asheville the loss will be ours. The article points out 80% of the engines being built are non military. Our country needs to provide a defense to protect itself. It’s fundamental to being a world leader. Countries such as Russia and China would love for the US to shut down its military and allow them to dominate globally.

  8. Philp

    Having an employer who hires skilled workers with livable wages that are not in the tourism or hospitality industry helps diversify our economy and is a good thing. What is not a good thing is where they are building their plant: In one of the most pristine and unbroken tracts of forest left in Buncombe county that is not in one of the national forests. Look on Maps to see hundreds of acres of unbroken forest along the French Broad river in the river-bend across from the arboretum to see what will be destroyed. Asheville and Buncombe county pretend to be concerned about tree canopy and keep doing studies and being alarmed at how much tree canopy is disappearing, and then do NOTHING to ameliorate the problem. This forest helps filter water that goes into the river also. Just the road salt they will use on all that parking lot and new roads will just add to the huge burden of salt that ends up in the river and goes to Douglas Lake in Tennessee: I guess we don’t mind raising Tennessean’s blood pressure by adding sodium to their drinking water.

  9. NIMBY

    The real travesty here has nothing to do with the incentives. It is that they didn’t immediately greenlight 800 new houses when they announced the new jobs. This is a narrow focus on short-term gains. Need to think strategically for the long haul. Open up the city and county to jobs, growth and density.

  10. swiftstroker

    What an outstanding opportunity for Buncombe County! Don’t turn them away; welcome them.

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