State official: Racial diversity not part of steel mill deal


LITTLE ROCK — The incentives Arkansas is offering Big River Steel to build a $1.1 billion steel plant in Mississippi County do not come with any requirements of racial diversity in hiring for the mill, and including such a requirement likely would kill the deal, the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission told the Legislative Black Caucus on Monday.

Gov. Mike Beebe is asking the Legislature to approve a $125 million bond issue, to be issued under the authority of Amendment 82, for the project. The project is expected to create 525 jobs at an average annual pay of $75,000.

AEDC Director Grant Tennille gave a presentation on the project Monday to the Black Caucus. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked Tennille whether Big River Steel would be expected to hire a employee force reflective of the local population. The proposed mill would be built outside Osceola, which has a population that is 53.9 percent black.

“There is nothing in the deal that requires it now, and I believe, if it’s the pleasure of the Legislature to try and amend the deal — it is absolutely your prerogative under Amendment 82 — sitting here right now I will tell you I believe that that will cause the deal to crater and they’ll take it to another state,” Tennille said.

Tennille said he was not saying that the company did not want to hire blacks, but that adding any new restrictions to the deal likely would prompt the company to go to another state that did not impose such restrictions.

Several members voiced frustration with Tennille’s answer. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, asked Tennille if any blacks had been involved in the early stages of negotiating the deal with Big River Steel.

“I don’t know what we can do to get change unless there can be some representation on the front end at the table from people representing this caucus,” Walker said.

Tennille said when companies are negotiating with states, “they are extremely specific about who’s allowed to be in the room, who’s allowed to know what’s going on.”

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, asked how the project would benefit the people of eastern Arkansas. Tennille said that whoever the plant hires, the area will benefit.

“The perfect example might be, the property taxes collected in Mississippi County are getting ready to increase enormously. Those tax dollars will be spent on schools. Those schools will benefit everybody who has a school-age child in Mississippi County,” he said.

The caucus did not take a position on the proposal.