Hailed as Arkansas' superproject, on paper it appears almost too good to be true. If it comes to fruition, I will truly be happy for my old hometown of Osceola that has been shackled to poverty as long as Helena-West Helena and Phillips County. Both were once booming farm communities until mechanization took over the manpower needs of farms and large corporations bought out many of the small landowners.
If Big River Steel LLC opens shop on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River, it, according to company officials, would eventually employ 525 people with an average salary of $75,000 – twice the state average. Like Phillips County, Mississippi County has seen a large portion of its population move elsewhere since the 1960 Census and also like Phillips County, a large segment of Mississippi Countians live in poverty.
There are plenty of similarities between the communities of Helena-West Helena and Osceola. Mississippi and Phillips counties have consistently ranked among the highest unemployment rates in Arkansas for years. Nucor opened a steel mill in Blytheville, 16 miles north of Osceola, in 1988 cutting that county's unemployment rate in half. Perhaps history will repeat itself if Big River Steel comes to town.
Before the superproject becomes a reality a lot of things must fall into place including the Arkansas Legislature authorizing $125 million in incentives. The plant also must meet regulatory approval.
What does Osceola have to offer that Helena-West Helena could not provide?
It is unlikely anyone will ever know whether Helena-West Helena and Phillips County was ever a player in the Big River Steel sweepstakes. However, our community, like Osceola, has an ideal location on the Mississippi River with a slack water harbor and other attractions and necessities available. The harbor sits about 65 miles south of Memphis.
Apparently, Osceola and Mississippi County have some leaders who are more than willing to stick their necks out. According to an Associated Press report, Mississippi County put up $12 million for the project and the City of Osceola contributed $2 million to buy land and develop utilities for the company. It appears some people west of the Mississippi are willing to gamble.
John Correnti, a former Nucor executive, apparently has a hit and miss track record when it comes to establishing new plants. He has been successful developing steel operations in Mississippi. He supported a $650 million Severstal steel mill that opened in 2007 in Lowndes County, Miss. but a separate silicon plant project in the same county fizzled when funding couldn't be found. Ditto for a $275 million proposed silicon plant that was never built in Stanly County, N.C. and a $175 million steel rebar project at Amory, Miss.
There's going to be a lot of broken dreams in this Delta community if the Big River Steel turns out to be a miss in Mississippi County.
Page 2 of 2 - This commentary is not intended to be a bad a reflection on the efforts of our own Port Authority that has courted some big fish in hopes of luring them into our harbor. We also praise the efforts of Doug Freedlander and the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce and Southern Bancorp's Delta Bridge Project in seeking to attract new small businesses to our community.
However, it is unlikely that Helena-West Helena and Phillips County can reel in the big fish until our city and county governments quit bickering amongst themselves, roll up their sleeves and get serious about landing a major industry in this area. It's been a long time since I lived in Osceola but I do know when the chips were down the people could gather around the tables at city hall and eventually decide what was in the best interest of all the people and not just the few. That just doesn't seem to happen here.
We also must continue striving for more educational opportunities and taking steps to reduce the staggering crime rate if we truly expect to be competitive when going after the big fish.
This is a wake up call Helena-West Helena, Phillips County. Hopefully, there will be other big fish out there to hook.