Construction continues to ramp up at Baxter International’s $1 billion manufacturing campus on the Newton-Walton county border, and a handful of senior officials toured local media around the sprawling worksite Wednesday.
The first building is under construction and is scheduled to be completed in late 2014, with the rest of the campus to follow in 2015; however, production isn’t scheduled to begin until the first quarter of 2018, as new pharmaceutical plants must go through a complex inspection and licensing process through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other federal and state agencies.
There are around 250 workers on site daily, the vast majority of them employed by the contractors and subcontractors handling construction of the plant, according to Scot Thomas, director of engineering for Baxter’s BioScience division. Thomas said there were 13 to 14 individual companies working on site Wednesday.
The campus will consist of around 1.2 million square feet of buildings, said Eric Schnake, Baxter’s engineering director, including a large storage warehouse; a freezer that will stay at minus 20 degrees Celsius to store the plasma used to make Baxter’s drugs; a utility building that houses heating, cooling and water processing; an administration building; an employee building with a cafeteria, exercise facility and the Baxter Credit Union; a fractionation building that will be used to separate the plasma into its useful components needed to make medical treatments; testing labs; and two production facilities for the two drugs the Covington plant will be producing.
The Covington plant will produce Gammagard, which uses healthy antibodies from blood to replace missing antibodies in those with immune deficiency disorders, and Albumin, which is an essential protein found in plasma that is used to treat burns and blood deficiencies, according to Baxter.
Moving to the area
The work site is filled with temporary trailers for Baxter employees and includes canteens – constructed by local company SteelCo – for the construction workers, but Thomas said all of Baxter’s Georgia employees are expected to consolidate at the Covington site by the end of June.
Baxter officials did not say how many employees have been hired to date, but a spokesperson said the company expects to have 100 local employees by the end of 2013.
Human resources director Calvin Klitz said the majority of the plant’s leadership team is in place, but new jobs are being posted each quarter and can be found at baxter.com/covington. There are multiple engineering and senior management positions posted currently.
Klitz said the majority of open positions require a four-year degree plus experience in the health-care industry. As hiring continues during the next five years, Klitz said, there will be positions for people ranging from high school graduates to those with advanced degrees.
In a follow-up email, Klitz said employees are locating all around the four-county area of Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties and beyond. The city of Madison and Oconee County have been mentioned as popular landing spots by officials.
“Employees have been very pleased with the local offerings, including the quality of schools in the area, availability of shopping and real estate available,” Klitz said.
As for the worksite, construction will ramp up significantly in the coming months, and Thomas said he expects to see 1,000 workers on site by September, with another jump expected in March 2014 when the site hits a peak of 2,200 workers. Texas-based Global engineering and construction firm Fluor is handling construction.
A major operation
The construction project is so big that it has its own on-site concrete plant, run by Atlanta-based Argos, that will produce approximately 60,000 cubic yards of concrete for the project, Thomas said.
Local sources couldn’t provide the needed capacity in a timely manner and setting up their own plant on site was the most economical way to go, he said. The concrete plant is providing what’s needed for temporary or permanent parking lots as well as the buildings.
Nearly everything on site at the moment, including the concrete plant and trailers, will be gone once the plant is completed. The footprint of the construction site is much larger than the size of the facilities because of all the space needed for parking, roads around the site and materials.
The one building that’s under construction is the central utility building, which will house all of the campus’s heating and cooling systems and supply compressed air and purified water needed for production, Schnake said.
“Everything is dependent on this being ready to go,” Thomas said, noting that 1,500 feet of piping will run from the building through the middle of the campus, forming a spine of utilities.
Because of the tight deadlines for this project, and most projects these days, the design for the rest of the campus’s buildings is actually still in process, despite construction already having started. Schnake said the team is still working on designing the interior of the manufacturing buildings in particular. It’s a fast-track approach that makes for a more complex process but is required to meet the needs of the market.
As for the trees that used to occupy the 162 acres of Baxter’s site, they were sold for use as timber and pulp, Thomas said. Once they were cut down, a lot of dirt had to be moved to smooth out the land.
“There was quite a bit more contour to the land than you see now,” Thomas said.
The company has been careful in the environmental impact it has on the area and has tried to keep all of the dirt on site, forming two mountains, one of topsoil and one of dirt that can be used to fill in areas.
Thomas said 85 percent of the waste produced during construction is being recycled and the company is tracking everything on a monthly basis as part of its “social consciousness.”
Since Baxter’s big announcement in April 2012, local officials have talked nearly non-stop about how to make Baxter feel welcome, recruit employees to this area and build off the successful recruitment. Well, Baxter officials have definitely noticed.
Thomas is new to Georgia, having moved here in January and said he’s never been greeted with such a welcome.
“(From the moment I) started working with local officials, Newton and Walton counties primarily, we have been welcomed here to a greater extent than any construction site I’ve ever worked on,” Thomas said.
“I think we’ve established really good relationships with our local partners, and they’ve been willing to work with us within their ability to accomplish what we need to accomplish, and to date we have. I have nothing but praise for our local counterparts.”
Why the wait to begin production?
When people hear that Baxter will be finished with construction in 2015 but won’t start production until the first quarter of 2018, they’re often puzzled, but the two-year delay is required for federal agencies to do a litany of tests.
“Testing and proving is what it comes down to,” Schnake said.
Schanke said the engineering team has to prove that the equipment it builds actually works. If it does, the equipment then goes to a validation phase, where it has to prove it can create the product being manufactured consistently within required specifications over a set period of time. All data is sent to the Food and Drug Administration for review.
“Literally, it’s half the work roughly to construct the facility and then the real rubber meets the road when you go to test it and demonstrate that it makes your product,” Schnake said.