The Charleston Gazette

Wednesday May 22, 2002

By Scott Finn
Staff Writer

CLAY — German native Manfred Kuentzer came to Clay two years ago promising to make filters for heavy equipment and create 300 jobs. He convinced politicians, development officials and the Clay County Bank to give him more than $500,000 in grants and loans.

Today, his business, Filcon Inc., is defunct, and development and bank officials are foreclosing on his property in an attempt to recover their losses.

Kuentzer was supposed to attend an economic development meeting Tuesday afternoon, but was nowhere to be seen. His phone in Clay is disconnected, and no one answers his number in Charleston.

At its height, the company employed only four local residents, according to a May 8 story in the Clay County Free Press. Filcon operated out of the former Rite Aid building in downtown Clay and had begun construction on a 20,000-square-foot facility in nearby Ovapa.

At the sheriff's orders, workers hauled Kuentzer's filter-making equipment away from the former Rite-Aid store Tuesday afternoon. It probably will be sold to pay debts.

The Clay County Bank has foreclosed on the nine-acre property in Ovapa.

According to a public notice, bank officials plan to sell the property on the courthouse steps June 5.

On Tuesday, yellow caution tape surrounded the property's entrance near W.Va. 36. A sign with peeling white letters said, "Growing with West Virginia. Financing provided by the Clay County Bank."

Across a small creek, siding is peeling off one wall of the half-completed shell building.

Last year, county development officials gave Kuentzer the $90,000 property for nothing, on the condition he build a factory there and create at least 15 jobs.

Kuentzer then used the property as collateral on a $255,000 loan from the Clay County Bank, a loan he has failed to repay.

It is unclear how much money Kuentzer still owes the bank. The bank's president, J.D. Morris, resigned late last month after the bank reported a loss of more than $260,000 in the last quarter of 2001.

Scott Legg, the interim bank president, declined to comment on Filcon.

Bridge To Nowhere

The Legislature got in on the Filcon act, too. It gave the county $50,000 from the Budget Digest so Kuentzer could prepare the site and build a road.

County records show that Kuentzer asked county officials to pay him directly for labor and materials, instead of paying the companies doing the work.

They asked Kuentzer to produce canceled checks to prove he already paid the other companies. He never did. He gave them an uncanceled check, but that wasn't enough, county memos show. Finally, the county paid the contractors directly.

One invoice shows Kuentzer getting 20 steel beams for a bridge, but no bridge exists at the site.

A note on Filcon letterhead promised state development officials that "the materials purchased from Metals USA will be used ... to build a road access with a bridge across the creek."

Instead of a bridge, three metal culverts lie in the middle of the creek, clogged with dirt and debris. Recent rains have washed away part of the access road to the building, cutting it off from the road.

The Fallout

State taxpayers and the Clay County Bank aren't the only ones hurt by Filcon's collapse.

The former publisher of the Clay County Free Press, Clinton Nichols, won a suit in magistrate court against Kuentzer. He had asked for $4,000 in back rent from Filcon, and the right to evict the company.

Nichols owns several properties in Clay, including the former Rite Aid building that Filcon leased. In a recent Clay County Free Press story, he said the company failed to pay him a total of $22,000 in rent.

In his response to the suit, Kuentzer said Nichols' statements were false and misleading. He accused Nichols of refusing to fix a leaking roof or deal with alleged asbestos contamination.

Fallout from the Filcon collapse may also have brought down a county commissioner. Commissioner Tim Butcher recently lost the Democratic primary race last week to challenger Peter Triplett.

In a Gazette article from 2000, Butcher bragged about attracting Filcon to Clay County.

"The sooner we can get him in a new facility, the sooner we can get 300 people working," he said. "That's a lot of jobs for any county in the state."

A Triplett supporter, Earnie Sirk, ran a full-page advertisement blasting Butcher's involvement in the Filcon deal.

"Landlord eviction ... bank foreclosure ... 300 jobs — He promised," the ad says.

Butcher replied in another ad this week.

"It did have the potential for 300 jobs. ... At least we tried. Can you ever remember when any commission ever got this close?

"If you never try — you will never fail at anything."

Tomorrow: Manfred Kuentzer left a trail of failed businesses in New York before he got to West Virginia. Should local economic officials have known?

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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