Special session on the near horizon?

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace got a tip a few minutes ago that there was the possibility of a special legislative session Aug. 13, in which lawmakers will take up incentives for an economic development project.

Phone calls to a few folks who usually know about these things yielded a recurring theme:

No, they all agreed, they had not heard about the specific date for the special session. They had, however, had cross their radar the possibility of something going on in Meridian. In three different phone calls, Meridian came up unprompted all three times.

It makes sense. Toward the end of the 2010 regular session, a bill that would have offered state incentives to a wood products facility in Meridian died. At the time, a couple of people connected to the project said it wasn’t quite ready to take the last step to the altar of economic development. Maybe it is now. Or maybe it’s something else really cool that nobody (other than perhaps Gov. Haley Barbour) knows about yet.

Dan Turner, Barbour’s spokesman, did not immediately return a call to his cell phone. We’ll post what he says as soon as he does.

UPDATE: After checking around, one of the sources we spoke to about an hour ago just called back to say that the Aug. 13 rumor “seems to be true.” There still is no definitive word on whether Meridian is the target. But the Aug. 13 date is looking, for now, like a solid bet.

SECOND UPDATE: Another source we talked to earlier today has been doing some checking since we last spoke, and offers this: “Unless I’m badly wrong, it’s not Meridian.” So that’s the latest. Still no word from Turner, though if/when he calls back, we’ll share what he says. Stay tuned.

Few tears for old 82 bridge

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Aside from being the official birthday of Magnolia Marketplace, July 26 will be a big day. In Washington County, a torch will be passed.

The new Highway 82 bridge that will connect Mississippi and Arkansas over the Mississippi River will make its debut in Greenville. Our collegue, Wally Northway, is working on an advance story about it that will run in next week’s MBJ.

Wally, a native of Greenville, has a more than a few stories about the old bridge, which was built in 1940. Most of them aren’t happy.

For starters, the bridge was narrow. The roadway was only 24 feet wide and didn’t have a shoulder. You didn’t want to meet a tractor trailer on it. Nor was it ever any fun to cross it at night, especially if rain was falling.

Its location on the river wasn’t that favorable for towboats. Captains earned their money negotiating the bend to the north. The bridge has been hit by river traffic countless times.

Economic developers think the new one have a positive impact. Besides having wider roadways, the approaches make it easier for wide loads to cross from one state to another, making the transport of goods quicker and cheaper.

“The old bridge served us well,” Northway said. “But good riddance.”

Categories: Economic development, News Tags:

A look at fundraising in the 1st District

July 15th, 2010 No comments

Besides the final vote tally, there are no numbers more critical to the 1st Congressional District race between state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and incumbent Travis Childers, D-Booneville, than the amount of cash each has raised and the amount each has on hand.

With the latest fundraising quarter drawn to a close, both candidates feel pretty good about where they stand.

Magnolia Marketplace spoke to Nunnelee and Childers earlier this week for a separate story that will appear in the next issue of the MBJ.

The breakdown:

For the fundraising quarter that just ended, Nunnelee brought in $312,000. Childers reported $277,000 for the same period. It’s the second consecutive quarter Nunnelee has won the fundraising fight.

“It is more amazing that he has done it with a majority of his funds coming from individuals from Mississippi rather than Washington PACs,” said Nunnelee spokesperson Morgan Baldwin.

Where Childers has the upper hand, though, is the amount of cash on hand – money that can be spent right now.

Childers said in an interview yesterday that he has more than $900,000 in the bank. Nunnelee’s camp said he had $233,000.

Childers attributed Nunnelee’s quarterly fundraising victories to his obligations in D.C.

“I’ve been in session. He’s been campaigning. Matter of fact, he’s been campaigning for 18 months, basically since the day I won,” Childers said. “I’m not concerned about the cash numbers. I feel very confident where we are.”

National and state political experts agree that this will probably be the most vigorously contested Congressional race in the U.S. this year.

The fundraising numbers do nothing but confirm that. Should be an interesting fall.

Categories: Elections, News, Politics Tags:

Chaney, Pickering: Fire rebate cash misused

July 13th, 2010 No comments

State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney have issued civil demands totaling just short of $22,000 to current and former city officials in Sledge.

Current city clerk Yvonne Amos, former mayor Bernard Handy and former city clerk  Mary Allen allegedly misused money the city received from the state’s Fire Insurance Rebate Program. More specifically, the three are accused of taking $13,579 of FIRP money that was supposed to pay for equipment and/or training for the Sledge Fire Department and transferring it to the city’s general fund to pay for recurring expenses, things like salaries, city vehicles and so forth. The state allocates FIRP money to municipalities where fire insurance was unavailable for home and business owners because of a lack of fire protection. It goes mostly to rural areas, and decreases homeowners’ insurance premiums.

While other municipalities have been caught doing this — Pickering mentioned Terry and Isola and Neshoba County — the past few years, what sets Sledge apart is that the three who wrote the checks (Allen, Handy and Amos) were unable to produce the FIRP money once it was discovered it had been misappropriated. Terry, Isola and Neshoba County officials, according to Pickering and Chaney, were able to refund the FIRP cash once the two agencies demanded they do so.

“This is the first case in a long time where people actually spent the money,” Chaney said.

As of now, this is strictly civil matter. Neither Chaney nor Pickering would say whether the three would face criminal charges, though it would seem they wouldn’t as long as the money is repaid to the state.

Categories: News, Politics Tags:

Chaney, Pickering to announce investigation results this afternoon

July 13th, 2010 No comments

State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney will hold a joint press conference this afternoon to announce the results of an investigation into the possible misuse of rebate funds by officials of the city of Sledge.

Pickering and Chaney will release their findings of their two agencies’ joint investigation at 1:30. Magnolia Marketplace will be there and we’ll have the particulars as soon as they’re available, so check back here around mid-afternoon.

Mississippi music historians will recognize Sledge as the birthplace of country music star Charley Pride. Legend also has it that the town was once home to a man named Leroy Brown who inspired the Jim Croce song. There are some folks who label Sledge as the birthplace of the blues. We’ll find out this afternoon if some of the town’s leaders should be singing the blues. Talk to you then.

Categories: News, Politics Tags:

China investing in Mississippi steel facility?

July 8th, 2010 1 comment

A handful of national and international business publications and blogs are reporting that a state-owned Chinese steel company has purchased — or has serious plans to purchase, depending on which one you read — a 20 percent stake in a Steel Development Corp rebar facility being built in Amory.

While that’s not news by itself, what is interesting is that a group of about 50 lawmakers who call themselves the Congressional Steel Caucus are opposing the move. They wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week asking him to open an investigation into the Anshan Iron and Steel Group. The group cites national security and American job interests as their reasons for opposing the deal (if there, in fact, is one).

For the record, there are no Mississippi lawmakers listed among the Caucus’ membership.

We have an email into Steel Develoment Corp. If and when we hear anything back, we’ll post it. Until then, a few more details can be gleaned here.

UPDATE: Verbatim from a Steel Development Corp. spokesperson, who said via email this would be all the company would have to say on the matter:

“Steel Development has a number of investors.  As a private company, it is not our practice to share investor names or the level of their investments.  However, due to unfounded concern regarding controlling interests in our company, we confirm that Anshan contributed less than 20 percent of the total investment in Steel Development.

As Steel Development endeavors to finalize the financing necessary to create 1,200 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs in the domestic steel market, it has come under fire for incorporating this investment from Anshan. With Steel Development projecting production of 350,000 tons of rebar per year in a 120 million ton steel market (less than three tenths of percent), the promotion of national security fears due to the Anshan investment is, at best, difficult to rationalize.

Notwithstanding the extensive political pressure applied by certain members of congress and other steel producers seeking to impede competition by stopping Steel Development’s efforts to build one of the world’s most technologically advanced steel mills, we will continue to focus our efforts on creating jobs right here in America.”

Categories: Economic development, News Tags:

This year’s Viking most important ever?

July 6th, 2010 No comments

Though it doesn’t tee off for nearly another three months, the 2010 Viking Classic has already shaped up to be a critical event for its organizers, its sponsors and the Metro Jackson area as a whole.

If you haven’t already seen our story about it in this week’s MBJ, check it out.

What makes this year’s Viking probably more important than any other is that the contract that names Greenwood-based Viking Range as the title sponsor expires when the tournament ends Oct. 3. This is also the last year of the agreement between the PGA Tour and Annandale Golf Club for the course to host the tournament. All the involved parties are in negotiations to extend both deals.

Nobody we talked to, on either side, was comfortable putting a timetable on when a decision would be made. But it was clear that, at least from the perspective of the local folks, the Viking means an awful lot, and not just economically, even though the tournament pumps an estimated $20 million into the area.

Randy Watkins, golf course magnate and executive director of the Viking, talked for a long time about how much pride he and his team, and the folks from Annandale, take in putting on a good show for the players and spectators. That makes what happened last year — when the tournament was canceled all together by heavy rains — especially difficult for them to swallow. It also makes them more determined than ever to put their best foot forward this year.

A lot rides on this year’s Viking, maybe the future of the tournament itself.

Categories: News, Viking Classic, Viking Range Tags:

Barbour and Mabus discuss the oil spill

June 30th, 2010 2 comments

Current Gov. Haley Barbour and former Gov. Ray Mabus, who’s now the Secretary of the Navy/Gulf Clean-up Czar, appeared together at a press conference this morning, and three themes kept recurring:

1. BP is responsible for funding the plan to restore the Gulf Coast to its pre-spill condition.

2. The plan will be formulated by Coast stakeholders and not the federal government.

3. Right now, there is no plan.

“I don’t have the answers now,” Mabus said. “I shouldn’t have the answers now.”

In an effort to perhaps glean some answers, Mabus has spent the past several days in Louisiana and is headed today to Mississippi and Alabama before traveling to Florida.

He will meet with government officials, business owners, residents, basically everybody who’s been affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster that just started its 11th week.

Barbour made the point a couple of weeks ago that those most affected by the spill should develop an environmental and economic recovery plan, while the federal government merely implemented it, instead of the other way around. Mabus said today he was on board with that concept.

“It’s really important this be a bottom-up process and not vice versa. I understand people are worried, they’re scared, they’re mad about what’s happened, and they have every right to be.”

A good portion of the anger has been directed toward BP since oil started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico April 21. The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward, hasn’t helped the situation with some of his comments.

Magnolia Marketplace asked Mabus how he would rate BP’s handling of the situation. He paused for about five seconds and said, “I think I’m going to rate my boss’ response to this. I think the president’s done a great job and has moved aggresively on this. I’m not in a position to rate (BP).”

Barbour had his own rating for the immediate efforts to remove at least some of the oil from Mississippi waters. In short, the state needs more skimming vessels than it has now, Barbour said, in what he called “a better execution” of the overall approach. “We had a significant amount of oil in Harrison County yesterday,” Barbour added, to go with the oil that washed up on the beaches of Jackson County earlier this week.

Barbour said more skimmers should arrive soon, now that an agreement has been struck with Sweden and a handful of other countries to provide assistance. About 4,000 people are working now to divert the oil from the state’s beaches and clean it up if and when it gets there.

Mabus flew over the spill yesterday.

“The scope of this thing is huge,” he said. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced, and not just a little bigger. It’s magnitudes bigger.”

Feinberg meets the Mississippi press

June 18th, 2010 12 comments

Ken Feinberg, who will oversee the process devoted to paying oil spill-related claims, was in Jackson visiting with Gov. Haley Barbour this morning and held about a 30-minute Q&A with assembled media.

Before we get into what was said, let’s talk a little about Feinberg. He’s an interesting character. He administered the fund created by the federal government to pay victims of 9/11. He did the same with a private fund set up to reimburse victims and relatives of victims of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

The Wall Street Journal has dubbed  him “The Special Master of America.”

The first thing I noticed about Feinberg when he took the podium today was how enthusiastic he seemed, and how his voice boomed. I kept trying to come up with a good way to describe him to somebody who had never seen him, and the best I could do was this: He’s Houston Nutt with a thick Boston accent.

Anyway, Feinberg will set up an independent claims facility he says will be independent of the White House and BP. BP is funding the cost to run the program, whose budget, Feinberg says, is virtually unlimited.

The goal is to reimburse any legitimate loss related to the spill — business interruption, wage loss, personal injury, even death claims, to name a few. BP will pay those claims, Feinberg and Barbour emphasized repeatedly.

That’s about all we’re certain of right now. What separates a legitimate claim from one that’s not is something Feinberg says he has yet to establish guidelines for.

He did say that he would rely heavily on Mississippi law for answers. For instance, if somebody files a claim whose legitimacy is less than clear, Feinberg would turn to Mississippi law to determine if the claim, if it were filed as a lawsuit, would be eligible for settlement or reward money arising from litigation.

“We’ll be looking at, if you go to court in Mississippi, where does the law cut (settlement or reward eligibility) off?,” Feinberg said.

Speaking of lawsuits, Feinberg said that if somebody files a claim, there is a strong possibility part of the terms of the claim being paid will include the claimant waiving his/her right to sue BP afterward, especially if the claimant receives a lump sum payment.

“That’s the way I see it,” Feinberg said.

BP has established an escrow fund that will, starting this year, receive annual payments of $5 billion until it reaches $20 billion, to pay spill claims.

“We’re entitled to recover all of the losses (from BP), even administrative costs,” Barbour said. Barbour had raised a few questions about the escrow earlier this week. He said he was worried pumping $20 billion into a fund immediately would rob BP of the working capital it needed to continue to make money so it could pay spill claims. He was satisfied with the annual installment plan.

Feinberg and Barbour both seemed comfortable that $20 billion would be enough to cover the damage done by the spill. Feinberg added that bankruptcy for BP “is not an option.”

In Gulfport, it’s hot but there’s no oil

June 15th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace took a trip to the Mississippi Coast this past weekend to watch the wife compete in a tennis tournament.

Here’s what we know: It’s as hot as I can ever remember it being this time of year. But that’s about as bad as the news got as far as the conditions in Gulfport, where we stayed. The beaches are clear. The water of the Mississippi Sound is murky but it always has been. There was no oil that I could see anywhere — in the water or on the beach. There was no smell of oil that I detected.

So take that for what it’s worth.

This oil spill mess is going to affect just about every industry and its interests in Mississippi, and it will affect them for a long time, not unlike Katrina.

So this week we’re continuing our look at how some of those industries are adjusting their game plans and preparing for if/when oil reaches the Mississippi Sound or our beaches.