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Morgan Crucible will reopen once shuttered Unicoi County industry

An improving economy has breathed new life into a shuttered Erwin industry, believed only a few months ago to be closed for good.
David Messina said England-based Morgan Crucible is reopeniang the former Morgan Insulation facility as Thermal Ceramics. Some former employees have already been called and are working again at the Erwin plant.
With industry closings around the nation almost routine in recent times, Messina’s enthusiasm at the chance for a new start in Unicoi County was palpable in an interview with The Erwin Record.
“I’m so excited to be able to do this,” Messina said. “This really is exciting.”
Over the years, the Erwin plant has operated under a number of owners and names – everything from Combustion Engineering and CE Refractories to Premier and Vesuvius. With its immense storage silo rising high above Main Avenue and Second Street, the plant had long been Erwin’s most visible industry. That made its closing even more noticeable.
Before it closed in 2009, Messina had worked at the Erwin plant since 1988 when it was known as Combustion Engineering. He was one of a handful of employees who accepted a position at the company’s plant in Augusta, Ga. Since then, he’s made trips back to his Northeast Tennessee home almost every weekend.
Now, Messina is home again, and he’s serving as the company’s new operations manager. He spent the past few days reaching out to former co-workers, some who have been out of work for months.
Tom Walters, the plant’s former operations manager, is acting as a consultant.
Over the next few days, Messina said, work will continue as the plant’s equipment is inspected and put back into operation. As many as two dozen workers will be employed as the plant begins operating again.
Reopening the Erwin plant, Messina said, came down to the age-old economic factors of supply and demand.
“Basically,” he said, “we’ve had an uptick in business and the domestic capacity wasn’t enough to fill the current demand, so it was decided that we could potentially reopen Erwin.”
Before the plant can completely reopen, Messina said, equipment must be inspected.
“We are basically a plant that’s been idle for a year and a half,” he said. “We’ve had a hot summer and a cold winter. We will be checking the equipment for potential damage. We’re basically in the process of checking the functionality of all the equipment and making necessary repairs.
“We’re hopeful we don’t run into anything too major that would cause us to abort a restart.”
Once operational, the plant will process a ceramic fiber blanket, which is high-temperature insulation.
“We had two production lines … the high capacity one is still there and, for the most part, preserved,” Messina said, noting that equipment from another line had been moved and is in use at the Georgia plant.
While in Georgia, Messina worked in the company’s marketing department and was involved in the transfer of equipment from Erwin to Augusta.
He said he would like to see the Erwin plant back in operation this week – or, at least, by Sept. 21.
“That’s my goal,” Messina said. “It all depends on the functionality of the equipment. There are a lot of issues, negotiations, things we need to solve if there are any bumps in the road along the way. Things are progressing fairly well.”
Messina said he has contacted “many of the previous employees that we had, and we are bringing them back in.”
“We have a lot of good people, that’s for sure,” he said. “The Erwin operation had an excellent reputation in the marketplace – very customer-focused and a producer of a very high-quality product. It’s really about the people. I’m personally very excited, getting the employees back and a really nice team together. We already have former employees at the site now working through the issues of checking the equipment.
“The opportunity to provide 24 jobs, well, that’s just great.”
Having proper equipment and a plant ready to be put back into operation is nothing, Messina said, compared to a work force of trusted employees.
“Having the skill and experience and the work ethic of good workers makes a difference,” he said, “and we have that in Erwin. It’s that type of process. It’s not just about nuts and bolts. It’s a process that has to do with an operator each step of the process. … I’m very excited.
“I’m hopeful that we can continue to make progress, open up shortly and very hopeful it’s for the long term. There’s no guarantee that it’s a long-term situation. It could be temporary to address the immediate capacity. Personally I think if we are successful at getting it up and running and the cost structure is favorable and we produce a quality product like in the past, it bodes very well for us.”