CORBIN — Gov. Matt Bevin, Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers and many other state and local officials welcomed Smart Wood to Corbin on Wednesday afternoon.
Smart Wood is a French family-owned manufacturer of ice-cream and coffee-stir sticks. Smart Wood's CEO and owner Frédéric Debacker and his family were at the Corbin facility celebrating its grand opening Wednesday at its location in the Southeast Kentucky Business Park at 89 KY 3606.
The facility brings with it a 90-job, $15 million operation capable of producing up to two billion sticks annually.
Bevin spoke about his visit to Europe last year when he visited Smart Wood's headquarters and parent plant during an economic development mission in Europe.
"What I was impressed about is this: Frédéric is a man who respects God, he respects his family, he respects his employees, he respects his role in the community," Bevin said of his meetings with Debacker.
"The values he has are so similar to the values of people in this community, so similar to the people of Kentucky.
"Those are exactly the kinds of companies we want in Kentucky," Bevin added. "I am absolutely sure that Smart Wood is only going to get stronger and stronger as the years go by, that it is going to bear incredible fruit in this community."
The facility will use locally sourced beech logs to manufacture ice-cream and coffee-stir sticks in a variety of sizes, shapes and lengths. As well, it will offer custom logo printing.
Eastern Kentucky’s supply of beech trees helped attract Smart Wood’s interest.
"In the USA one-third of the surface is forest," Debacker said. "In south Kentucky it is much more than that, it is almost three-quarters."
As a hardwood, beech is strong and largely lacks odor and flavor, making it preferred for food-grade uses.
"In the USA you consume 10 billion ice cream sticks every year, each single year," Debacker said. "You import in the USA three-quarters of them, only one-quarter is produced locally in the USA."
Bevin said his family would do its part to keep Smart Wood in business.
"As the father of nine children I can tell you that part of those billions of sticks are used by my family, we eat a lot of ice cream," Bevin said.
Many local officials were on hand to celebrate the opening of Smart Wood. Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney presented Debacker with a key to the City of Corbin. Executive Director of the Southeast Kentucky Industrial Authority Bruce Carpenter gave Debacker a crystal jar. Bevin also presented Debacker with a mint julep cup.
"We're very grateful that they chose Corbin, Knox County, southern Kentucky, Kentucky as their location for the North America operation," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Debacker had toured the facility on a winter day in February and his willingness to walk around the facility in the mud showed his true interest in the location.
"His first concerns when he was looking for a location were healthcare and education," Carpenter said. "It was very critical because he had families who would be moving here from France, not only for those families, but he wanted to make sure that the jobs he was providing here in our area that we had adequate healthcare and education and that was actually the first two visits we had, with our superintendent of the school system and the president of the hospital."
To encourage the investment and job growth in the community, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority in June 2016 preliminarily approved the company for tax incentives up to $3 million through the Kentucky Business Investment program. The performance-based incentive allows a company to keep a portion of its investment over the agreement term through corporate income tax credits and wage assessments by meeting job and investment targets.
In addition, Smart Wood can receive resources from the Kentucky Skills Network. Through the Kentucky Skills Network, companies can receive no-cost recruitment and job placement services, reduced-cost customized training and job training incentives.
Smart Wood was founded as Euro Sticks Group in 1926 to make components for shoes prior to World War II. Thereafter, it moved into production of tongue depressors, splints and other wooden devices. As the market for popsicle and ice-cream sticks grew internationally, Euro Sticks Group expanded.
In addition to France, the company now operates plants in Germany the Czech Republic, Romania and Turkey as well as distribution facilities in Australia and Mexico. It employs 750 people worldwide and supplies over 15 billion sticks annually.
Knox County Judge-Executive J.M. Hall welcomed Debacker and Smart Wood to the county.
"We have a workforce here that's second to none that we want to provide," Hall said. "On behalf of all the citizens of Knox County, and the job creation that you're going to do, we sincerely thank you from the bottom of our hearts."