By CHUCK BARTELSLITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) â¿¿ The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System hopes to invest $60 million in the $1 billion Big River Steel LLC mill planned for Osceola, officials announced Wednesday. George Hopkins, executive director of the Teacher Retirement system, said the fund's staff and a consultant spent about six months looking at the venture and concluded it's a strong project. Trustees meet Monday to vote on whether to go ahead with the investment, which would represent one-half of 1 percent of the $12.25 billion fund. The investment would be contingent on the Legislature's approval of a $125 million loan to help finance the mill project, which also would have to clear regulatory hurdles. The Legislature has 20 working days to vote on a measure once members are presented legislation. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he expects to get a bill within a week or two and he's looking for ways to speed the process. "We're contemplating how do we form some joint, small group to start before it (the bill) gets in committee," Carter said Wednesday. With no approval delays, construction could start in the summer and the mill could be turning out steel less than two years later. It's the kind of project leaders in the Delta have struggled to attract. Mississippi County has struggled since Eaker Air Force Base closed in 1992, losing one fifth of its population in the following two decades. Among the 46,000 people who remain, 9.3 percent are unemployed and a third of them live in poverty. Big River Steel is led by John Correnti, a former Nucor Steel executive who engineered the 2007 launch of a successful $650 million steel mill at Columbus, Miss. Correnti says the Osceola mill will have more than 500 positions that pay $75,000 annually and will employ 2,000 construction workers.
This week's announcement of the project at the state Capitol with Gov. Mike Beebe had a celebratory tone but also carried a note of caution, considering the necessary legislative action, which would require a majority of legislators to vote in favor of the state taking on debt.Carter has stopped short of predicting passage, saying instead that legislators have to go through the due diligence process. As Osceola waits, it has a model to follow on the other side of Mississippi County, which used its river and rail transit access to develop a steel industry. Nucor Yamato Steel has been a success story in neighboring Blytheville and is part of the reason the county's unemployment rate isn't in double digits. Osceola's biggest employers include a greeting card plant, American Greetings, which has about 1,300 people on staff, and Denso Manufacturing, where about 400 workers make heavy machinery radiators and automobile air conditioners and heaters. The last major project in town was construction of the Plum Point Energy Station, a 655-megawatt coal-fired electric generation plant. Harry Keatts opened his downtown Osceola restaurant, the Sandbar Grille, when that plant was being built. Having the extra construction workers in town helped the business get off to a good start, he said. But then the local economy returned to normal. "Things here in the Delta have been dire for many years," he said. "Just keeping the restaurant open has been a challenge." Between the city's population drop and temporary housing that was made available to the Plum Point workers, the city can easily accommodate 2,000 temporary construction workers. "And they like to eat," Keatts said. Amarjit Singh, owner of the Deerfield Motel in Osceola, said he's also eager for another construction boom. "We made a lot of money when (Plum Point) was being built. We were about bankrupt and the Plum Point saved us," he said.
Hopkins said the teacher retirement fund could stand to gain a 40 percent return on its investment within five years. The fund's portion of the investment will rest in an escrow account until it's certain the plant will be built."If the Legislature approves it, there will be a steel mill in Osceola, Arkansas," he said. ___ Associated Press writer Jeannie Nuss contributed to this story. ___ Follow Chuck Bartels on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cbartelsLIT