Harry Gravell helped save the Delaware City refinery


Good morning, The death this week of former Delaware Building Trades Council chief Harry Gravell, Jr. at age 67 brought back memories of a turning point in the state’s business history.

In 2008 and 2009, Delaware had been hammered by the loss of its two auto plants. In a disastrous hat trick, Valero had closed the Delaware City refinery, which had reportedly been losing $1 million a day.

Brian Selander, a member of the administration of then Gov. Jack Markell, remembered one tense day in Dover.

“The refinery closed down and there were no jobs on the horizon. He led hundreds down to the capital to be heard. They were tossing work boots at the building to remind people what it was like to walk in their shoes. Jack Markell needed to get into the crowd and talk to them but State Police were worried. No worries, we thought. Harry’s in charge. Nobody messes with him.”


PBF Energy, a start-up, emerged as a possible buyer, but Thomas O’Malley, the founder of a company that was eying Delaware City as its first refinery needed a labor deal.

Alan Levin, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, got O’Malley and Gravell together.

Both O’Malley and Gravell, a Salesianum graduate and Vietnam veteran, were known to be hard-nosed negotiators.

“Harry needed a good deal for his guys,” Levin remembered. The same was true for O’Malley, a tough former commodities trader and veteran CEO who made it clear that he would go elsewhere if an agreement could not be struck.

“Harry knew when to fight and when to compromise,” Levin said. In the end, a deal was struck that worked out well for both. A financial package that included a contribution from the state led PBF to invest $200 million in the refinery.

Delaware City emerged as a success story for the Markell Administration that is rarely noted these days. PBF now operates five refineries around the nation and has continued to invest in the First State refinery.

“Harry was as smart as he was strong and as kind as he was funny. He knew who he fought for and knew what mattered most. He made everyone better for knowing him,” Selander remembered.

Levin, who now resides in Rehoboth, echoed those sentiments and remembered running into Gravell, who had retired to Lewes, at SoDel Concepts restaurants. (Levin, who is best known for building Happy Harry’s drug stores into a statewide chain, serves as an advisor for SoDel)

“Can’t I get a free meal around here?” Gravell would good-naturedly ask Levin. That would lead to the kind of back and forth that comes with two friends who went through a battle together.

Click herefofor moren Gravell’s life from the Cape Gazette.

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