The state’s first superproject has turned its first official shovel of dirt.
“Welcome to steel mill heaven,” said John Correnti, Chairman and CEO of Big River Steel, which officially broke ground on its new $1.3 billion steel mill factory to be constructed in Osceola, Ark.
Although site prep work has been ongoing for weeks, company officials and state and local leaders turned dirt in the Mississippi County soybean field that will eventually house the massive steel complex. Big River Steel Mill is an advanced manufacturing, state-of-the-art production plant and will produce steel for the automotive, oil and gas, and electrical energy industries. It is expected to create 525 high-paying jobs once it is online. During the construction process, as many as 2,000 jobs are anticipated. Construction is expected to be completed by March 2016.
“Big River Steel is here,” Mississippi County Judge Randy Carney said.
Several hundred people, including Gov. Mike Beebe, D-Ark., Big River Steel CEO John Correnti, Carney and Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore, attended the event on a cool, September morning.
The state of Arkansas is heavily invested in the superproject. The Arkansas Legislature authorized the state to issue $125 million in general obligation bonds under the authority of Amendment 82, the state’s superproject amendment. That legislation allows the state Legislature to approve up to 5% of the state’s general revenue budget to be used for bonding of large-scale economic development projects.
The groundwork on the project began in September 2012 when Kennemore got a phone call from Correnti.
“It was on a Saturday morning and my phone rang. It was John. He asked me what I was doing and I said, ‘Drinking coffee.’ He said we needed to talk and I asked about what. He said, ‘I want to build a mill,'” Kennemore said.
Kennemore thanked Correnti for the project and said other industries have expressed interest in Osceola since the 2013 announcement. Correnti said Big River Steel would provide good jobs and a strong future for residents.
“I have had people ask me why? Why build a mill? I told them three reasons. First, it is profitable. Second, it is fun except when a bunch of process servers try to shove a lawsuit in your face. And third, it is a lot of self-satisfaction,” Correnti said.
Correnti said the push for the mill came after an unlikely phone call from former President Bill Clinton while Correnti was on a business trip in Toronto.
“He said, ‘John, I am lobbying for Arkansas to get that plant,'” Correnti, who previously was an executive with Nucor, said of the conversation. “He said what would it take to get the plant in Arkansas? I told him it has not changed in 30 years. He said ‘electricity.’ And I told him, ‘you got it.'”
The steel mill hasn’t been without controversy.
Nucor Steel, which has two facilities in the region, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming Big River Steel would violate the federal Clean Air Act. Nucor has objected throughout the permitting process with state environmental officials that once Big River Steel comes online it would harm the air quality in the region. Nucor alleges in the suit that the emissions from the proposed Big River Steel mill would negatively impact the health and productivity of Nucor employees.
Despite the opposition, Correnti was complimentary of the team of suppliers he’s assembled in moving the project forward.
“I want to thank our suppliers. You have been through a lot,” said Correnti in reference to Nucor’s opposition. “All we are trying to do is to reduce the 11.6% unemployment rate in this county.”
Beebe said the project was complex and fraught with obstacles. However, Beebe said the county’s residents have worked to rebuild their county in the past 15 to 20 years.
“I have to brag on Mississippi County,” Beebe said, noting the county is home to a major interstate, the Mississippi River, railroad service and major electrical lines. “What trumps it all is the quality of the people.”
Carney said the steel mill could be a transformative opportunity for the county’s future, while Kennemore said it will help people achieve the American Dream.
“It is a dream come true. In life, the greatest accomplishment is to help people and to help people help themselves. With this, it will happen,” Kennemore said.