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Project walk-aways and no-shows: the other side of Golden Triangle ledger


By JACK WEATHERLY 

John Correnti was thrown out of Joe Max Higgins’ office.

Correnti was one of the people that had brought a big steel mill to Columbus.

Now he was on to another project in Lowndes County, but, according to Higgins, chief executive of the Golden Triangle Development LINK, things weren’t going smoothly.

Correnti was a legend in steel-making. He oversaw the building of two mills in Arkansas for the Nucor Corp., of which he later became chief executive.

He was in the forefront of what the industry calls second-generation “mini-mills,” an even more-efficient version of the old behemoths that date to the days of Andrew Carnegie.

And here was this Higgins guy telling Correnti to get out of the office.

Correnti and partners wanted to build Calisolar, later called Mississippi Silicon, on a 250-acre site.

Correnti had made what Higgins recounted as a “unilateral decision” to build a road that would have cost the county an unanticipated $4 million to $5 million.

The pioneer in steel-making slammed his fist on the long conference table and shouted: “I want my  f * * * * * * road!”

What?

He repeated the demand, also punctuated with a fist on the table and the expletive.

Prompted by the Golden Triangle’s chairman of the board, Higgins used similarly colorful language in telling him to get out.

Higgins and his board had tired of what he decided was Correnti dragging his feet on the deal, so they demanded a refundable $150,000 be put in escrow to hold the property.

Correnti wouldn’t budge, and ultimately took his plan to Tishomingo County, where Mississippi Silicon started operations in the fall of 2015, with 200 jobs in the offing. Just as he had with the Columbus steel mill, Correnti formed an investment group that was a minority investor  in the silicon plant.

Higgins said last week in an interview that he and Correnti had buried the hatchet before Correnti’s death in August 2015.

A plant was lost for the Golden Triangle, but a lesson was reinforced. “A lot of people in a lot of places would let someone like that run over them and get taken advantage of. That’s scary. You can’t do that.”

Higgins “didn’t just have a temper tantrum. He had a good reason,” said Michelle Whittle, a past chairwoman and still a member of the board.

“Joe can absolutely be one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met in my life,” Whittle said. “At the same time, if you are not a person of your word, if you are not a person of integrity, he can be one of he most horrific people you’ll ever gonna want to meet in your life.”

The first few years of his tenure were a period of adjustment, Whittle said.

“It took a lot of the old naysayers awhile to learn that Joe was going to win for us if we let him.”

“By the time that happened with Correnti, we were all on Joe’s side. Joe Higgins is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life,” she said.

Subsequently, another man with a big plan and from all appearances not much else proposed a $1.2 billion mill to produce aluminum alloy for truck and auto bodies.

But Specialty Aluminum Alloys simply never would reveal to the Golden Triangle or the Mississippi Development Authority the source of its financing.

No public money was lost in the runup to what didn’t pan out, though a prime 826-acre site was held for Specialty Aluminum for nearly a year, Higgins said.

“But that’s just the cost of doing business,” Higgins said. The Triangle has a “batting average” of about .500 on major projects, he said.

Local businessmen were taken in, including two that invested $500,000 each, he said.

About that time, the company told local and state officials in Mississippi it had a deal with the state of Louisiana to build a $1.2 billion mill in Pineville.

Higgins had been publicly critical of the American Specialty Chief Executive Roger Boggs.

Now called Revolution Aluminum Propco LLC, it has been sued by several parties for a total of about $2 million for failure to pay back “bridge” loans and for unpaid work. It has been placed in involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A hearing on that status in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Western Louisiana set for Dec. 14 was moved to Feb. 1.

One of those creditors accused Boggs and Revolution of fraud and deceit and that “Revolution should be considered the alter ego of its sole member and officer, Boggs.”

Another major project, KiOR, a $300 million private investment at Columbus that was to convert wood chips into motor fuel, did not succeed.

The state lent the startup $75 million to produce what it said was “bio-crude oil” that could be refined to diesel fuel and gasoline – without the biocarbon emissions of petrochemical fuels.

The plant was built but never produced enough fuel to sustain its operation.

(It was one of three cutting-edge projects championed by then-Gov. Haley Barbour. Twin Creeks Technologies in Senatobia likewise failed to achieve full commercial production of solar panels and shut down. The Mississippi Power Co.’s “clean coal” plant in Kemper County is years behind schedule and its initial projected cost of $2.9 billion has risen to about $7 billion.)

The state filed suit in Hinds County Circuit Court in January 2015, accusing lead KiOR  investor Vinod Khlosa of fraud and deceit.

The suit is still pending, according to the MDA.

The Golden Triangle holds the deed to the land, and “ended up making money” as the plant was dismantled, Higgins said.

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