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Mississippi lawmakers pass incentives for $2.5B aluminum mill project

The project outside of Columbus will employ at least 1,000 people with an average salary three times the state’s median income, but opponents believe the $240 million in economic incentives could have been better spent elsewhere.

(CN) — The Mississippi Legislature convened in a special session Wednesday to pass bills aimed at incentivizing a $2.5 billion investment Republican Governor Tate Reeves characterized as “the single largest economic development project in state history.” 

While some details of the development are being withheld due to nondisclosure agreements, Reeves and other officials have revealed the project by Steel Dynamics Inc. will be located outside Columbus in Lowndes County, will include “a flat-rolled aluminum production facility, biocarbon production facilities, and certain other industrial facilities,” and will provide approximately 1,000 jobs with an average salary of $93,000, or more than three times the state’s median income. 

“Mississippi’s economy is firing on all cylinders and this game-changing investment is bringing a thousand high-paying jobs to our state,” Reeves said in a statement. “One of my top priorities will always be to raise the per capita wages of Mississippians. This historic economic development deal does exactly that and will have a remarkable impact on communities across Mississippi.”

In a news conference Tuesday, Reeves said the scope of the project greatly exceeds the estimated $900 million in new economic investment the state averages each year. This particular project is nearly twice as big as the previous largest corporate capital investment in state history, Reeves reported. 

During Wednesday's session, state Senator Josh Harkins, a Republican from Flowood, said Steel Dynamics will even pay the college tuition for their employees’ children. 

“This is going to be life-changing for families that aren't used to making that kind of money,” Harkins said, telling reporters afterward the developer is a “well-established” company and the agreement is performance-driven, meaning the company will have to meet benchmarks to gain the incentives. “The shot in the arm this will give to Mississippi’s [gross domestic product] is just incredible.”

Lawmakers passed at least two bills Wednesday to support the project, including one which provides as much as $155 million in grants to the developer. The state will also provide certain tax breaks and rebates to the project for a period of years, while local and state authorities will make infrastructure improvements in and around the project site. The total incentive package is worth roughly $240 million.

In a statement Wednesday, Steel Dynamics President and CEO Mark D. Millett said the aluminum flat-rolled market is a new focus for his company.

“We have intentionally grown with our customers' needs, providing efficient sustainable supply-chain solutions for the highest quality products,” Millet said. “Thus far, this has primarily been achieved within the carbon steel industry — however, a significant number of our flat rolled carbon steel customers are also consumers and processors of aluminum flat rolled products. This investment broadens our ability to serve our existing and new customers by adding high-quality, low-carbon footprint flat rolled aluminum to our product portfolio.”

According to the company, the mill is designed to have an annual production capacity of 716,500 tons of finished products, serving the sustainable beverage packaging, automotive and common alloy industrial sectors. 

Not all lawmakers were happy with the appropriation, however, suggesting the state has a greater need for investment in areas such as infrastructure and health care. State Democrats held an impromptu news conference on the Mississippi State Capitol steps to encourage the Legislature to hold a special session on health care. Mississippi is one of 11 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

State Representative Daryl Porter Jr., a Democrat from Summit, tweeted that an expansion of Medicaid would create more than 10,000 jobs per year for five years, but sarcastically added, “Governor Numbers Guy said come to Jackson on the taxpayer dime for 1,000 jobs and tax incentives while continuing to ignore the healthcare crisis and its obvious solution.”

Speaking to reporters during a recess, state Senator Briggs Hopson, a Vicksburg Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, called it “an incredible long term deal for the state.”

“We are making an investment up front .. but the long term payout is phenomenal,” he said, noting the agreement includes clawback provisions to recover any money improperly spent or if the developer fails to fulfill its own obligations. “Mississippi could not be better protected than we are under this agreement.”

In neighboring Alabama, a similar large-scale aluminum mill was announced earlier this year in Baldwin County. There, Novelis is constructing a $2.5 billion recycling and rolling plant, which will provide roughly 1,000 jobs with an average salary of $63,000. To reel in that investment, state and local governments offered some $253 million in incentives.

In Mississippi, the project will be built in four phases and is expected to be substantially completed by 2029.

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