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Kemper Plant Brings Economic Stimulus to East Miss.

By Daniel Cherry | Published 06 Mar 2013 07:27pm | comments
Mississippi Power's multi-billion dollar power plant under construction in east Mississippi is embroiled in fierce debate, but for Kemper County it means business development like residents have never seen. MPB's Daniel Cherry reports, the project is bringing jobs by the thousands to the rural area.
 
Deep in the forests of western Kemper County lies Mississippi Power's most ambitious project ever. A massive 582 megawatt power plant. The plant will extract highly flammable gasses from a soft form of coal called lignite to produce electricity, and each day the site comes alive with thousands of welders, pipe fitters, and construction workers. Jeff Shepard is a spokesman for Mississippi Power.
 
"We're at peak construction. 3,500 laborers out here. Most of the people in Kemper County today are here building this power plant", says Shepard.
 
The plant is about 75 percent complete, but it's not the only place bustling with activity.
 
About a mile north of the plant site sits TM's Snack Shack. A hole in the wall place, where Tammy Lee serves up meals for hungry construction workers.
 
"We've got lunch plates, burgers, hotdogs, corndogs, a wide variety of stuff", says Lee.
 
Lee drives from Clark County, south of Meridian about 45 minutes each way, 6 days a week. She opened up the snack shack about two years ago.
 
Lee says, "Well there's nowhere around here for anybody to eat so I figured I'd give it a shot. There is another store about 4 miles down the road, but on this main strip this is it until you get to DeKalb."
 
Modestly, Lee says business is "pretty good", but throughout lunchtime, the line doesn't dwindle and, most importantly, the cash register never goes quiet. Along the winding country roads near the plant site are several RV parks that have recently popped up, housing the workers who have moved closer to the site. Craig Hitt, Executive Director of the Kemper County Economic Development Authority says that's trickling down to other businesses in the county.
 
"The community is benefiting from their living here just like they would be if they were at home. They're purchasing gasoline. They're purchasing food supplies. They're purchasing propane and all of the necessities that are needed for them to live and be a part of this community", says Hitt.
 
And Mississippi Power spokesman Jeff Shepard says construction alone employs more than 3 thousand workers.
 
Shepard says, "And that's just the workers that are here. The companies that are involved in it from Mississippi, there's more than 300 of them involved. Olive Branch to Pascagoula, Vicksburg to Meridian, all points between. This project is touching the entire state of Mississippi."
 
However, the 2.8 billion dollar plant isn't without controversy and that's putting it lightly. The project is steeped in court battles...reaching the state Supreme Court...multiple times. There are concerns about cost, environmental impact, and if the technology will even work at all. Louie Miller, Director of the Mississippi Sierra Club, says unemployment is still higher than 12 percent in Kemper County so he's not jumping on board with praising the economic benefits of the project.
 
"The question is: How many of them are Mississippian jobs? Not many. The Kemper School Board is suing the Board of Supervisors over the fact that they're not getting ad valorem taxes from this plant. So it ain't all roses unfortunately", says Miller.
 
And just this week, the Mississippi Public Service Commission ruled in favor of a 12 to 13 percent rate increase for Mississippi Power customers to help fund construction of the plant. The average Mississippi Power ratepayer will see their monthly bill rise by about 20 dollars per month this year and even more in 2014. Dozens of outraged customers like Wayne Ferrill of Gulfport testified before the commission, calling a rate increase unfair.
 
"It's not about whether or not this plant could help the state of Mississippi or the 23 counties represented in this area, but can we afford it? Can we afford to put the burden on the backs of the people of Mississippi?", says Ferrill.
 
Estimates by Mississippi Power say the plant is responsible for nearly 12 thousand direct and indirect jobs during construction, and one thousand permanent jobs once the plant is completed. Craig Hitt with the Kemper County Economic Development Authority says with increased revenue flowing into the area the county is poised to grow faster than anyone could have imagined.
 
Hitt adds, "We have an opportunity to grow Kemper County. Whether it be residential development, with retail development. We have two municipalities, Town of DeKalb, Town of Scooba. So we want to grow those municipalities, and we want to grow Kemper County as a whole with these opportunities that have come our way."
 
The plant is projected to go online May 2014. But long after the construction is over, Hitt hopes the long-term economic impact will keep the projects coming. Daniel Cherry...MPB News.

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