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.
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.”
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
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.”