Notes From Wednesday's House Meeting on Big River Steel

Wednesday's Arkansas House "committee as a whole" meeting on the proposed Big River Steel project in Mississippi County took on a Groundhog Day vibe.

Just two days earlier, Arkansas Economic Development Commission director Grant Tennille and state officials appeared before the full Senate to answer questions about the state's announced deal with Big River Steel to build a $1 billion steel mill in Osceola.

And just like two days earlier, Gov. Mike Beebe appeared in person but after an introduction handed off podium duties to Tennille. The House meeting perhaps wasn't a complete carbon copy of the Senate meeting, but Tennille and his band of merry investors and recruiters found themselves answering many of the same questions and offering many of the same explanations. And that's exactly how they wanted it.

The state wants to get this right, and it'll need the legislature to provide the final stamp of approval on the deal. House Speaker Davy Carter reserved the right to call back Tennille and other state officials should other questions arise. But after a nearly three-hour Q-and-A on Wednesday that saw an almost full House chamber dwindle considerably, legislators were ready to retire and ponder the load of information provided them about the deal by AEDC.

While Tennille and his cohorts, that included representatives of the Arkansas Teachers Retirement System, Delta Trust, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the Department of Finance & Administration, likely were ready to hit a nearby happy hour.

Tennille, et al, reiterated much, including the "multiple layers" of due dilligence done on Big River and its leadership group and many safeguards put in place to protect the state. They answered questions about environmental impact (from Republicans, even), and offered assurances that those concerns have been met. The mill will have its own onsite treatment plant, for example.

Also, in response to a question about the number of out-of-state workers potentially employed by the mill, Tennille noted (again) that the state preferred to place the project in central Arkansas. But several factors led them back to Osceola and the site that Big River CEO John Correnti called "steel mill heaven."

Those factors included a better railroad deal in Mississippi County, a better river harbor for barge traffic there and higher costs to connect power lines to the central Arkansas site.

Generally, the House meeting covered the same ground covered by the Senate on Monday. But there were House-specific tidbits:

  • Tennille said if Arkansas doesn't close the deal, Mississippi still has a $160 million incentive package on the table for the project.
  • Technically, the site will be publicly owned with Big River having special benefits, rights and uses on it. The deed, ADFA's Mac Dodson said, will say either Mississippi County or ADFA depending on how bonds are structured.
  • Tennille said he'd take a steel mill over an IBM investment any day. You can move minds and computers anywhere, he said; a steel mill ain't going anywhere. "You can't load a steel mill up in the back of a truck and drive it out of town in the middle of the night," he said.
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