I stand before you duly chastised.
OK, actually I’m sitting down, but you get the point.
In reporting on the Pratt & Whitney plant ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 16, I gave short shrift to a group of protesters with Reject Raytheon AVL who had gathered outside the gargantuan new jet engine parts plant in South Asheville. I did stop to snap a photo of them, and included a paragraph in the story about their presence.
But I could’ve done more, even though I was on deadline to get the story written that day. Yes, Asheville has about as many protesters as residents, and you can’t cover all of them all of the time, but in this case, I should’ve included their voice.
I planned on interviewing some of the 12 protesters after the ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the plant, but it dragged on for a couple of hours, and by the time I left the protesters had too.
They were protesting outside, at a traffic circle, by the way, not inside the building.
So I caught some well-deserved grief online about the article being a little too cheerleaderish about Pratt & Whitney locating here.
Huge Investment, Huge Subsidies
To be fair to myself, it’s not only a gargantuan plant, it’s an enormous investment — $650 million — that the company says will create 800 jobs by 2027, with an average annual salary of $68,400. That will create a huge boost for local workers, so yeah, it’s a big deal.
Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at the event, along with high-ranking Pratt & Whitney officials, and officials from their parent company, the defense contractor Raytheon Technologies.
Overall, I do think it was appropriate to concentrate on the event, which drew a few hundred people, and not the 12 protesters outside. But again, I should’ve included at least a quote or two.
The protesters raise fair points not only about these companies and the United States’ astronomical spending on the military, but also about all of the tax incentives that went into drawing Pratt & Whitney to Asheville. Those subsidies, including a $27 million incentive package from Buncombe County, total nearly $100 million and include a new highway interchange off I-26 and a new bridge leading to the site off Brevard Road.
This deal, in the works for three years, also took place almost entirely in secret. Companies looking to locate here often require officials to sign non-disclosure agreements, and that further keeps the process hidden from public view.
As a reporter, that drives me nuts, and it raises the ire of groups like Reject Raytheon AVL, too.
“We didn’t know until 18 months down the line this whole thing was happening, and by that time it was a done deal,” Ken Jones, one of the protesters, told me in a Nov. 23 interview, noting he was not speaking on behalf of Reject Raytheon AVL.
Biltmore Farms, the development company that gifted Pratt & Whitney the 100-acre site it built its 1.2-million square foot production facility on, has another 900 acres nearby, which seem primed for more development. Economic officials say landing a big fish like Pratt & Whitney could well draw more companies.
Seeking a Moratorium
Jones said Reject Raytheon AVL is now calling for a moratorium on anything going into those 900 acres that’s a “fossil fuel corporation” or enterprises that contribute to global warming, “like jet engines or even commercial airplanes.” They also do not want more defense contractors or subsidiaries, which Jones, a retired education professor, refers to as “war corporations.”
“You can use those 900 acres for economic development, but don’t use it in that way,” he said. “That’s what we’re saying now that Pratt & Whitney is a done deal.”
Raytheon bought Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine manufacturer, in 2020. Pratt & Whitney maintains that more than half of its engines go to civilian aircraft, but it is proud of providing engines for the American F-35 jet fighter plane – and the company’s overall connection to the military.
“We build engines that defend freedom and connect families and, quite honestly, that’s a purpose that we hold dear – and I think that’s a purpose that’s never been more important than it is today,” Shane Eddy, president of Pratt & Whitney, said at the event.
Once in production next year, the Asheville plant will produce jet turbine airfoils, fan blades that go deep inside a jet engine.
Jones said Pratt & Whitney’s connection to Raytheon is deeply troubling, even if more than half of its engines go to civilian aircraft.
“We consider them war profiteers,” Jones said of Raytheon. “They make every conceivable thing about warfare, from missiles to bombs to radar to everything else.”
Raytheon, Jones said, is notorious for arming Saudi Arabia, which has attacked civilians in a long-running military action in Yemen, and the company’s weapons have been used in numerous other conflicts around the globe.
“These jet fighters not only are the most horrendous users of jet fuel, talking about a climate emergency, but they’re killers,” Jones said.
Protesters Prefer Climate-Friendly Companies
Jones and other protesters have deep concerns about the climate emergency, and companies like Pratt & Whitney whose products contribute to climate change.
They would like to see economic development officials, Biltmore Farms CEO Jack Cecil, and local politicians put their efforts into enticing climate-friendly companies to the area.
“The amount of money going into really a war machine and an industry that contributes so terribly to the climate emergency is not only not needed, it’s dangerous,” Jones said. “That’s the source of our disagreement.”
I will note that Neil Mitchell, chief financial officer of Raytheon, did come out of the gate with a gaffe at the ribbon cutting ceremony. A previous speaker had noted that when company officials met with Jack Cecil on the site a couple of years ago, it was untouched.
“When I was here that day with Jack, I couldn’t believe he was going to let us cut all these trees down,” Mitchell said, generating some nervous laughter in the audience. “But I think what we put here is really going to benefit this community for decades to come, so I’m really proud of it.”
While Jones stresses that he’s empathetic to the need for jobs for local folks, he and Reject Raytheon AVL also maintain that more jobs could have been created by incentivizing non-military companies.
“For an equal amount of money put into health, education, infrastructure, clean energy, you get more jobs,” Jones said. “Now, the degree to which there is an equal amount of pay is debatable.”
But overall, Jones said, he considers the Pratt & Whitney deal not only a bad investment but “to our view an irresponsible choice to feed the climate emergency and to feed the American war machine,” Jones said.
Playing devil’s advocate
Now, I know some folks are certainly going to take issue with Jones’ opinions and those of Reject Raytheon AVL.
Personally, I think we simply have to have weapons of war to keep our country secure in a very dangerous world, although I think we spend way too much money on military equipment and operations and not enough on health coverage.
And, like it or not, North Carolina and Buncombe County have to pony up huge incentives to land a big company like Pratt & Whitney, because if they don’t the companies will go to South Carolina or other states, and our economy will fall even further behind.
Playing a bit of devil’s advocate, I asked Jones if he believes America should even have weapons of war, if there’s a need in our world for jet fighters.
“You know, ideally we’d love to see disarmament around the world,” Jones said.
But he added that’s really not the right question to be asking, in part “because almost every county has a military, right?”
“The question to me is, ‘Have we gone overboard with our military?” Jones said. “And the answer is, ‘Absolutely yes. Not only the percentage of our budget devoted to it — over 50 percent of the discretionary federal budget — but (we have) 800 bases around the world. Look at the endless string of wars we’ve caused, Afghanistan and Iraq and Serbia and on and on.”
The United States, in fiscal year 2021, spent $801 billion on its military. The next nine countries, which include China, Russia, and the United Kingdom, spent $777 billion combined, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The foundation cited figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“We have a military that is not defensive,” Jones said. “It’s an imperialist military.”
We can all argue that point, and the others Jones raises. The point here is when we’re luring big fish like Pratt & Whitney, the public has a right to know what they’re paying for. The process needs to be more transparent, and the tax dollars spent with the utmost care.
And reporters like me need to go the extra mile to include dissenting voices.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.