Thompson Updates NEARK Steel Mill Project

Thursday, February 21, 2013
State Senator Robert Thompson of Paragould

With the current legislative session in full swing, activity has intensified at the state capitol in Little Rock. Last week was the final week for lawmakers to introduce proposed amendments to be referred to voters, and a total of 37 were filed. Those are now being considered by the House State Agencies committee.

The issues cover a wide range of subjects, from requiring a photo ID when voting to having members of the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Game and Fish Commission to be elected, instead of appointed by the governor.

Lawmakers are also considering three school choice bills, after a federal judge struck down the state's school choice law last year.

According to State Senator Robert Thompson of Paragould, many of his constituents in Northeast Arkansas' 20th district have been expressing interest in the proposed steel mill construction project in Mississippi County and its funding.

"The big issue we're dealing with right now is with the steel mill, Big River Steel LLC, which is being planned for Osceola," Thompson noted Monday afternoon. "Amendment 82 was passed about 10 years ago and it gives the Legislature certain authorities to finance so-called super projects."

Thompson explained that the powers afforded through Amendment 82 have never been used, but are expected to come into play with the Big River Steel project first proposed by Gov. Beebe in his "State of the State" address.

"We are legally required to look at each project and decide if it is good for the state of Arkansas" Thompson noted of the lawmaker's role in the process. "To see if it is a secure investment."

He added that on the surface the plan looks good, adding "so far the consensus has been that we're excited, but cautious, as we examine the issue."

"The project has already gotten three good reviews--first from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission then from the Department of Finance and Administration and both were favorable," he explained. "The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System is also looking at investing funds from the system into the project and would be an equity holder. They had an outside firm do an evaluation of the project, and the profitability, and felt it was a good deal. They felt it looked like an investment that would show a good return in just a few short years."

The four-term state senator, and former state representative, went on to explain the process.

"The House and Senate have been looking at different firms to review the issue, and after the official proposal is delivered to us we'll have 20 days to put it to a vote. We do want to have a firm locked-in before that time, but this will happen during the current session," he added.

Thompson also added that he feels that the project will have a much-wider impact than many believe, "

this project has a much large potential than many people realize for all of Northeast Arkansas, and the jobs are quite lucrative. This project will provide great jobs, especially for young people, with an estimated base salary of $75,000 per year."

He also noted that economic impact estimates are often low when first drafted, citing the current steel mills in Mississippi County as examples. "When the first two steel mills were proposed for Blytheville about 20 years ago they estimated about 350 new jobs, and that has increased to about 1,400 now. The new Big River Steel project is expected to bring about 525 new jobs to the region, and the city of Osceola is not going to be able to fill all those positions."

He added that the positive impact would be widespread. "There will be jobs for people in Greene and Clay Counties too...this is going to create good jobs all over Northeast Arkansas."

The cost of the steel mill project has been estimated at one billion dollars.

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