Proposed Big River Steel Mill Gives Community ‘Reason to Exist'

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 12:00 am  

Anyone seeking a site for a steel mill has to answer three main questions, said John Correnti, the Blytheville-based steel mill impresario:

One, where’s the market — that is, who’s going to buy the product and where are those customers located? (“If your customers are all in Asia, you certainly wouldn’t be putting a mill in Arkansas.”) Two, what’s the cost of the input, the raw material that feeds the mill? Three — and this is a big one — how reliable and cheap is the electricity available to operate the mill?

The answers led Correnti and the investors in his Big River Steel LLC to 1,140 acres in Mississippi County. It is the “largest available industrial site on the lower Mississippi River,” as Clif Chitwood, the county’s economic developer, touts on, the website devoted to luring industrial prospects to the region.

It took Correnti and Arkansas economic development officials about a year to put together the deal for a $1.1 billion “mini-mill” to be built near Osceola, a plant that would employ 525 people earning an average yearly compensation of $75,000 apiece. It’s a deal that Gov. Mike Beebe called the “largest economic development deal in the state’s history.” It’s a deal that hinges on legislative approval of $125 million in state-backed bonds to pay for incentives the developers call essential to locating the project in Arkansas — no financing, no plant.

What follows is a narrative not so much of how the agreement came together over the course of a year, but why it came together, gleaned from interviews with state economic development officials, Correnti and representatives of Entergy Arkansas, which would provide the power to run the mill.

The takeaway? Entergy’s cooperation in the deal was crucial, and if rural communities in Arkansas don’t attract industries like steel mills, their reason to even exist eventually crumbles to dust.

Give Santa Claus a Break

“You have to have a philosophical turn of mind that allows you to accept that the normal thing that happens at the end of a project is that it goes somewhere else,” Chitwood told Arkansas Business.

“Success is hard won and certainly not something someone should ever feel entitled to,” he added by way of criticism of complaints from economic development officials in Mississippi angered by Big River’s decision to reject that state in favor of Arkansas.

Chitwood has that turn of mind, which is fortunate because he — and Arkansas — has experienced a fair amount of rejection in the pursuit of industrial prospects and “super projects”.

And he has no patience with his counterparts in other states who complain about being “jilted” by Correnti. Among Correnti’s “empty promises,” as the Jan. 5 issue of the Dispatch of Columbus, Miss., termed them:

• A silicon metals facility that Correnti planned for Lowndes County, Miss., and which would have employed more than 900 workers. The silicon plant would have produced material for solar power panels.



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