TUSCOLA, Ill. — In years past, Brian Moody's efforts to bring economic development to his small Illinois town focused on modest projects: merging an old hardware store whose owner was retiring with another shop to preserve 30 jobs or pointing artists to a vacant downtown building.
Now he has a bigger prospect. Cronus Chemicals wants to build a $1.2 billion plant on a nearby cornfield that would manufacture nitrogen-based fertilizer, a staple of the corn and soybean farms that fill the landscape around Tuscola, a community of 4,500 people about 160 miles south of Chicago.
Similar projects are being proposed across the nation, driven by booming demand for corn and newly abundant supplies of natural gas, a major component in fertilizer production. The plants promise thousands of jobs during construction and hundreds of full-time spots once they're up and running. And most of them would go in small, rural towns where economic development isn't easy.
"It's equally time-consuming and frustrating," Moody said, explaining that such promising job-creating opportunities are rare.
The wave of potential expansion comes with concerns. An explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant in April killed 15 people in the community of West, highlighting the dangers of such facilities and how loosely they're regulated.
But in communities like Tuscola, local officials say they're prepared to handle those risks. A large chemical plant already stands near the proposed fertilizer site.
"The fact is that whether these plants are going to be here or not, we have three major railroads that go right through the middle of this community," said Steve Hettinger, chief of the Tuscola Fire Department. "Those railroads on a daily basis move all kinds of threats."
Experts say conditions are ripe to bring fertilizer production back to the United States after an exodus to the Caribbean and elsewhere a decade or more ago, when high domestic natural gas prices drove many manufactures away.