An inventor and engineer who grew up in Graceville and still has deep family ties there has purchased the old Factory Stores of America mall property in that town and will transform a portion of it into a home base for his company, McNeil Technologies.
Ron McNeil said he’ll need just less than half the space, some 42,000 square feet of what’s under roof, and will offer for lease the rest of the facility, roughly another 55,000 square feet.
He expects to be ready to open his relocated operation around Christmas of this year. He’s moving the local headquarters from a spot in Bonifay, he said, because he didn’t have the room he needed there to keep accommodating his rapidly growing business.
The 25 acres of property and its structures became available at the end of last year, when Vanity Fair, the primary mall occupant, closed, and the other two stores followed suit.
One of the company’s primary functions is to make and provide Triplex Liners, which McNeil invented, to municipalities, counties and other entities with sewer systems and certain other infrastructure. The liners are installed in manholes, sewage pump stations and culverts under the road by the company or its partner contractors. They are cured-in-place components that workers sew together on large commercial-grade machines. Workers will also be blending epoxy resins, and using heat and steam in the processes involved in manufacturing the product. McNeil said his liners are designed to last a century. In a recent video posted on the company website, McNeil gave a brief demonstration of the liner replacement job it did for Graceville and there are other demonstration videos there.
The liners help prevent deterioration of those critical infrastructure assets and McNeil’s products are used across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Both his sisters, Carolyn Weaver and Kathy Jones, are in the business with him and other family members are also involved.
McNeil’s parents, Alvie and Clodessie McNeil, moved their family to a 44-acre peanut farm about four miles outside Graceville when he was 6 years old. He said that he was a shy farm boy in his youth and that trips into town were exciting events in those especially thriving years for the business community. Although, because of that shyness, he was likely to cross the street if his steps took him in the direct path of town boys, he loved the bustle of a downtown that had a little bit of everything for a family coming in for supplies.
His young mind was filled with inventive ideas, he said, and that inventive spirit continues today: He’s been granted about 200 patent claims. The 76-year-old suspects his fascination with invention goes all the way back to a fact of his infancy.
“When I was 10 days old, I had double pneumonia,” he said. “My parents took me to the doctor that delivered me. I was blue; I was dying. He said, ‘There’s a miracle drug but it hasn’t been used on anyone less than 6 years old and I won’t know how much to give him,’” McNeil said in reciting the oft-told family story. His parents, facing their baby’s likely death as the alternative, gave the doctor the go-ahead to try. “He brought back penicillin,” McNeil said. “He gave me shots every 45 minutes. I came back around and lived.”
The invention of that drug, just coming into adequate production levels the year he was born, would usher in the age of antibiotics and let a little boy live and hunger to invent life-improving things himself.
To bring one of his own inventions back to his home community — with many jobs starting at $12 an hour and some much more than that — McNeil says, is a special thrill that charges his excitement over being alive and contributing.
He said he’s also excited about hosting the Oct. 16 Graceville Harvest Festival on the property, just as mall entities had done in years past.
At Christmas, he plans a winter event there for the community as well.
In the meantime, McNeil is looking for certain qualities in potential employees as he begins the local hiring process. He’s bringing over about 12-15 people from the Bonifay operation but projects needing a workforce of 25-40.
“Employees, they won’t come in knowing how to do what we do, but we can teach them,” McNeil said. “Good, hard-working, honorable people, that’s what we want and if they want a career, we’ve got ‘em. Most of our jobs will pay between $12 and $20 an hour. I’m excited about life, and here I am coming to Graceville, helping rebuild a town I grew up in, a town I shopped in, ate in, and that was the center of that bigger world of mine off the farm. It’s a thrill for me.”
He’s especially hopeful about the trickle-down effect that his new business and new jobs might have on the economy at large and perhaps especially so for a particular business in town: His niece, Kelly Register, owns the Circle Grill restaurant in Graceville. A whole new set of customers, he hopes, will find their way to her door and take a place at the table sometimes.
She’d been the one to contact Jackson County Commissioner Clint Pate to find out how to reach the former owner of the mall property. Pate brought the parties together. The men had signed their deal within 24 hours of their first meeting.
McNeil isn’t the only inventor his parents raised: His older brother, the late Vaughn McNeil, invented the round outdoor trampoline.