Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's Not You. It's Him.

John Correnti has serious commitment issues. Just ask Harry Sanders, Joe Max Higgins, Gary Utt, Larry Collins, Gene McIntyre, or the folks in Sunnyvale, California and Ontario, Ohio.

Correnti, head of Mississippi Silicon, spent months - sometimes years - leading them on with assurances of big economic opportunities for their communities. More often than not, Correnti would tell them a deal was done, then suddenly move on.

Consequently, none of them have much nice to say about Correnti, the businessman promising 200-odd jobs in Tishomingo County, with the help of about $25 million in taxpayer money.

“John Correnti and this group [of businessmen] have a history of speaking of great big, huge projects that never end up happening,” said Sanders of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.

Correnti is chairman of the board of Mississippi Silicon, which earlier this year broke ground on a silicon production facility near Burnsville in Tishomingo Count. If his past is any indicator, even breaking ground doesn’t mean it’s a go.

Sanders should know. His county lost hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to woo Correnti and a proposed silicon plant to Columbus. For a while, with $75 million in state incentives on the table, it looked like the $200 million project was a go. Until Correnti and his partners, after repeated delays, wouldn’t even come up with $150,000 to keep $19 million in Lowndes County money.

“We’re not going to put any money down on escrow,” Correnti said at the time. “I never have on any project I’ve ever done. If people don’t have the patience for it, so be it. That’s OK.”

In fact, while Correnti promises big, it appears the only successful project he’s fronted is the Severstal mill in Columbus, and that wasn’t without its problems, said Higgins, head of Golden Triangle Development Link in Columbus.

According to Higgins, Correnti went “grossly over budget” and went to city and state officials seeking more money. “What was supposed to have been a $650 million project ended up costing closer to $1 billion.”

The Severstal steel mill, SeverCorr under Correnti, was completed in 2007 and purchased by Russian steel giant Severstal shortly thereafter. Severstal announced the sale of the plant in July.

“Severstal here in Columbus is the only project [Correnti] has ever completed,” Sanders told reporters in early 2013. “He was supposed to build a rebar business in Amory near here that never got off the ground. His silica purification plant never got off the ground. He tried to build a steel mill in Puerto Rico. So I don’t know. His track record is just not very good. But he is a hell of a salesman.”

The failed Amory project, a rebar plant Correnti had promised would boost the area jobs and income levels, also cost Monroe County money. There, at least, ground was actually broken for the project before Correnti pulled out, citing a lack of funding. It had been touted as the largest single investment ever” for the area. Gee, that’s how they’re billing Correnti’s newest project in the neighboring state of Arkansas.

“It was touted as a done deal,” said former Monroe County Journal Editor Chris Wilson. “[Haley Barbour] came to town with some people associated with the project.” Shortly after, the industrial property that had been leased to Correnti and his crew was quietly deeded back to the city.  “They wear a community out, and then they move on to another community and wear them out,” said Golden Triangle Development Link’s Higgins.

It’s not just Mississippians who’ve have been left at the alter by Correnti. Taxpayers in Ohio and North Carolina were left on the hook for expenses related to Correnti proposals, too.

In 2011, residents and business leaders in Richland County, Ohio, thought they were going to get 1,100 high-paying jobs with a Correnti silicon purification plant. The U.S. Department of Energy had approved a $275 million loan for the project, the state of Ohio was giving $100 million in incentives, and local officials also had promised a package of incentives for the project.

“[Correnti] played us good for a year,” said Richland County Commissioner Gary Utt. He said company officials demanded more and more government money but never offered any proof of the private financing to match.

Former Ontario, Ohio, Mayor Larry Collins called the loss of the silicon facility a “great disappointment.” But, he said, “In retrospect, it’s the general consensus that we dodged a bullet by not being in business with John Correnti.”

It was that Ohio proposal that ended up in Lowndes County. But only until Correnti and his gang were asked to put up or shut up.

At the same time Correnti was wooing Ohio officials with his big promises, telling officials he would bring new industry to Stanly County, North Carolina.

According to local officials and news accounts at the time, Correnti’s Clean Tech and Silicon Bar, LLC, was negotiating a proposed $300 million plant in Badin, N.C. “Even after they announced they were coming to Mississippi, they came back and tried to negotiate with us,” said former Stanly County Commissioner Gene McIntyre.

The good folks in Sunnyvale, including the 350 employees of Calisolar, learned the hard way about Correnti’s promises. Shortly after taking over as chairman of the board for Calisolar, the company started laying off employees and divesting assets.

The company had supposedly raised $245 million to expand the California facility -- with the help of a $3.5 million California tax credit -- before unceremoniously packing up for greener pastures.

So what does this mean for Mississippi Silicon? There are a lot of legal and legislative hurdles to clear before the plant is up and running. Rima Industrial, Correnti’s primary funder in the Burnsville plant, is facing a Federal lawsuit for racketeering and money laundering, among other things. Rima – and its Chariman, Ricardo Vincintin – are also facing criminal charges for lying to the government of Brazil for destroying a rain forest to build a coal mine. Questions are starting to arise from a mysterious trip Governor Phil Bryant took to Rio de Janeiro, and in a matter of weeks, a company that didn’t exist had full backing of Brazilian based Rima.

In short, we all know Phil loves ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Who doesn’t love the excitement and mystery of a first date? Sadly, with Correnti, there is no guarantee our $25 million is getting Phil to first base anytime soon.

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