Work is officially underway to build a $1.3 billion steel mill in east Arkansas that officials believe will provide an economic boon for the region.
"Big River Steel is here!" Mississippi County Judge Randy Carney announced to applause during Monday's groundbreaking ceremony.
Hundreds of dignitaries, including state and local officials, joined investors, contractors, vendors, and supporters during the event near Osceola.
Mayor Dickie Kennemore told the crowd that the process started back in 2012, when he took CEO John Correnti to the site where Big River Steel is to be constructed. Kennemore said it has been a long process, but he is happy the groundbreaking took place.
"I would like to tell you how excited I am about this. I never expected something like this,” Kennemore told the crowd. “I have been working toward something like this, but never expected it.”
He said the project is crucial to help the county get out of double-digit unemployment and provide a better quality of life for citizens of the area, which has been economically depressed for many years.
"We went through some depressing times when we lost the [Eaker] Air Base [in Blytheville], and textiles and shoe factories. We pulled ourselves up by our boot straps and passed our own sales tax, which led to the incentive to eventually place the steel mill here," Kennemore said.
He thanked Correnti for his decision to place Big River Steel in the region, which he says will help tremendously. 2,000 temporary construction workers will be hired to build the facility in 20 months, with nearly 500 workers, earning an average of $75,000 dollars annually, to eventually work there.
"He has helped people already in Mississippi County. The Big River Steel project will help the workers and their families, as well as the service industries. We are already working with several and we hope to announce real soon three or four more service industries that are interested in coming to Osceola as a result of Big River Steel," Kennemore said.
Correnti said the location of a steel mill in Northeast Arkansas was a "no-brainer."
"You can’t beat it for putting a steel mill here. You have the Mississippi River on the east border and Interstate 55 on the west border. You have railroad transportation, Entergy’s main transmission line, and other resources. That is perfect."
Correnti vaguely mentioned the federal lawsuit that has filed against the company by Nucor Steel in Blytheville as "legal shenanigans." Nucor is wanting to stop the project, accusing the company of violating the Clean Air Act. He said Big River Steel will work to the highest standards, will train workers appropriately and pledged "to keep unions and management out of the way so workers can make a lot steel and a lot of money."
Gov. Mike Beebe also spoke to the crowd, stating that Mississippi County is now known as one of the top steel producing areas in the world. He said it's a great sign for those who live and work in the county, because the area is moving out of the classification as being one of the most economically depressed in the state, and the region.
"If you can think about a county that has suffered more than any county in unemployment, lost productivity, and major organizations leaving, it is this one," Beebe said. "Then look at that same county picking themselves up from their bootstraps and making a turn around like this. It serves as an example for the rest of the state."
Beebe also praised the workforce in Mississippi County, and said the people who will make the steel deserve as much of the accolades for Big River Steel as the people who worked to make Big River Steel possible.