COLUMN: Facing the facts: Westwin Elements will bring desperately needed jobs to Lawton while operating safely and responsibly

May 21, 2024

By Brad Cooksey, The Lawton Constitution

Our core mission with any economic development project is to raise the standard of living for Lawton’s residents and taxpayers by attracting investment, high-paying jobs and committed, respectful employers to our community.

That’s why we believe the Westwin Elements project provides a game-changing opportunity for our shared future, creating more than 700 jobs with an average salary of more than $100,000 per year, and building on our community’s reputation as a leading destination for America’s defense and national security industries.

It’s no secret that Lawton’s median household income trails the Oklahoma state average — by at least $10,000 annually, according to most recent statistics. Closing that critical income gap is what motivates those of us who serve on the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation and is why we are focusing on attracting large projects like Westwin Elements to our community.

A project of Westwin’s size will not only create hundreds of high-paying jobs, but also generate four times as many indirect jobs in related industries including construction and transportation.

The work we’ll be doing here will place Lawton at the forefront of addressing our nation’s reliance on China for rare metals that our defense and national security manufacturers increasingly require. And while this project will be the first critical mineral processing facility in the U.S. it is utilizing tried and true technology that has been employed and evolving overseas for more than 130 years.

While the benefits of the Westwin Elements proposal are significant, no economic development project is worth jeopardizing the health and safety of our citizens.

That’s why we vigorously engaged with the Westwin team over the past 24 months, asking tough questions and conducting our due diligence before approving their project. We continue to meet with them frequently as construction on the facility progresses.

It bears repeating that every single company doing business in Lawton is required to comply with all environmental rules and regulations. Since this is a new industry for our community, we went above and beyond our standard review process and hired third party experts to examine Westwin’s policies and procedures, confirming that the company is and remains in environmental compliance.

We’ve been heartened to see the willingness of the Westwin team to engage in community discussions, answering good and tough questions from citizens and updating the company website as the construction process evolves to keep the community in the loop.

Some questions posed to the Westwin team have focused on the nickel carbonyl refinery process the company will be using. While new to the U.S., this technology was discovered overseas in 1890, with a safe and proven track record for producing high-purity nickel around the world.

In fact, a facility in the United Kingdom has been using this same process since 1902. It is located along a river, in the middle of a bustling neighborhood and just a few steps away from a yoga facility. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many yoga studio owners who would set up shop across the street from a 100-year-old business that was bad for the environment.

Westwin’s leadership team is entrepreneurial and innovative, and, yes, some of them are young. But the team has more than 200 combined years of operational and technical experience in the nickel carbonyl process, and I don’t have to remind you of the many young American entrepreneurs who started businesses that have become giants of our economy.

That being said, we also know that nothing in life comes without risk. That’s why, under our agreement with Westwin Elements, as with other companies we recruit to Lawton, they have been required to purchase environmental hazard insurance. Additionally, LEDC, along with our partners at the City of Lawton and the Comanche County Industrial Development Authority, negotiated an agreement that protects our investment. The purpose of the pilot plant is to prove Westwin’s ability to employ the carbonyl process effectively and safely. It’s pretty straightforward: if Westwin’s pilot plant is not successful and they do not move forward with the commercial plant, we will retain ownership of the building and the land, which we can use as a valuable marketing tool as we pursue our mission of recruiting businesses looking to relocate or expand.

In addition to my day job bringing companies and jobs to Lawton, I’ve spent countless nights over the last 13 years in local gyms refereeing basketball games. Fans and coaches only see me on the court for a couple hours during the game. They don’t see the hours of training and studying the rulebook that goes on behind the scenes to ensure I’m making the right calls at important moments.

It’s not unlike the time and work I and city officials, city staff, board members and other subject matter experts have put in, diligently evaluating this project to ensure it is a win for our community. We have been and we remain committed to providing information and having thoughtful, civil conversations as we work together to grow our community and raise our shared standard of living.

Brad Cooksey is a native Lawtonian and president of the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation.