State funding for mill upgrade makes sense

Aug 25, 2014

Legislation is on its way to N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory that will help defray costs of a major infrastructure upgrade in Haywood County. Evergreen Packaging in Canton must reduce toxins in its emissions within two years to meet new federal air quality guidelines.

The proposed plan to convert two of the mill’s boilers from coal to natural gas has been estimated to cost $64 million and plant owners have asked for state and local buy-in to help share the burden.

A prerequisite for the conversion is bringing in an expensive new line that can deliver natural gas in the quantity that will be needed to power the mill, and the taxpayer funds made available from both local and state government will be used to help make that possible.

Government entities have a history of building infrastructure to promote commerce. Railroads were given sweetheart deals to bring lines into new areas, electric cooperatives were incentivized to provide rural Americans with the same level of services available in urban areas, and the interstate highway system was seen as vital to the nation’s commerce.

The interstate was built with tax money and is maintained through mandated taxes to this day. The same is true with promoting telecommunications, which was encouraged as far back as 1934 and is still a focus today to ensure increased broadband capabilities across the nation that will allow for speedy and affordable access to the information highway.

Fast-forward to 2013 in the North Carolina General Assembly where a proposal to help upgrade the natural gas delivery system into Haywood County encountered a path so rocky that funding almost never materialized. The reasons why are varied and murky.

There were allegations from several directions that state funding assistance requested by Haywood’s legislative delegation amounted to little more than corporate welfare. Secondly, there appeared to be friction between the two Republicans representing the county who were in the position to do the heavy lifting on this bill. And finally, the overall contentiousness of the legislative session boiled over into this local issue that seemingly got caught up in the fray.

It has long been said that following legislation as it unfolds is about as appealing as watching sausage be made, and that is certainly true in this case. What really matters in the end, though, is that the result is a palatable one, and that, too, is true in this case.

There are many who deserve credit for the last-minute save in the final hours before the N.C. General Assembly adjourned for the session.

Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers and Michael Sorrells, a commissioner and the chairman of the economic development commission in the county, put in countless hours lobbying for Sen. Jim Davis’ pigeon-holed bill after legislation sponsored by Rep. Michele Presnell funding the upgrade was defeated last week. Davis, who was out of town, was working with Rep. Joe Sam Queen and others to bring his bill back into play. In the end, there were plenty of legislators who understood the need to level the playing field when it comes to providing needed infrastructure for one of the longest-running manufacturers in Western North Carolina.

Evergreen and Haywood County can count this as a huge win, and congratulations are deserved all around for those who helped make it possible.