By ANDREW DeMILLO
OSCEOLA, Ark. (AP) _ Officials broke ground Monday on a $1.3 billion steel mill in northeast Arkansas that’s being touted as a boon to the economically struggling Delta region and the largest single private investment in Arkansas’ history.
The ceremony at the Big River Steel site marks the beginning of work for the state’s first “superproject” under a 2004 amendment that allows Arkansas to borrow money to help lure major employers. The state has issued $125 million in bonds for the project, which is also receiving millions in other public funds for its construction.
“Welcome to steel mill heaven,” John Correnti, Big River Steel’s CEO and chairman, said at the ceremony.
More than 2,000 people are expected to be hired to work on constructing the plant, which will take about 20 months to complete. Once finished, the plant is expected to employ more than 500 people with an average annual pay of $75,000.
Local leaders say the influx of jobs will be a major boost for a county suffering from an 11 percent unemployment rate. Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore said his city is already seeing new homes being purchased and firms looking at building additional homes for the workers expected.
“It’s going to positively affect citizens of all of northeast Arkansas for years to come, directly and indirectly. You get more workers, you get more school teachers, more grocery stores,” Kennemore said. “We went through the downside of the domino effect, and now we’re coming to the upside of the domino effect.”
Gov. Mike Beebe said the 1,400-acre site for the mill makes sense given its proximity to a major interstate, the Mississippi River and a major railroad. But he said the start of the project is more a testament to the county’s workers.
“All of those issues are significant and important to make it happen, but you know what trumps it all? What trumps every bit of it is the quality of the workforce,” Beebe said.
The Arkansas Legislature approved financing for the Big River Steel facility last year. The company officially closed on financing necessary to build it this year.
In addition to the bonds, the project is receiving $14 million from local government, and the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System has committed to investing $125 million in it. Big River Steel is also receiving $10 million in training funds from the state and other incentives including sales tax refunds on building materials and equipment.
The project still faces a legal hurdle. Nucor Steel, which operates two steel mills in Mississippi County, has filed a lawsuit in federal court aimed at blocking the project and revoking the company’s air permit issued by the state. Big River Steel has until Oct. 10 to respond to the lawsuit, which Correnti has previously called frivolous.
Correnti made a veiled reference to the case Monday in listing why he enjoys working on projects like the steel mill: “They’re fun, as long as there’s not a bunch of process servers serving you with another lawsuit.”
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