Check#039;s in the hand

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 18, 2002

Physically, it was the same size as any other check, but it may have felt a bit heavier because of all the digits on the right-hand side of it.

And, who could blame anyone for wanting to just touch it? After all, it has been a long time since local officials have had the chance to claim this much money.

Thursday, three officials from Duke Energy presented the Lawrence County Commission with a check for $3,921,907. It was the first of 13 tax abatement checks, part of an arrangement made to bring the power plant, jobs and all, to Lawrence County.

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"I can't say how pleased we are to be here," said Charles Holland, Duke Energy North America asset management senior director. "The experiences we have had, to date, have far exceeded our expectations."

The feeling was evidently mutual.

"This is an exciting day," Commission President Jason Stephens said. "Since the ground breaking in January, we have seen real

tangible benefits. Duke has been very honest and straightforward with us. This (money) will make an impact that will be felt for decades to come. And even after the abatements are over, Duke will still be a taxpayer."

"I'm pleased to see Duke here," Commissioner Paul Herrell said. "I'm pleased to know you're hiring local people. I appreciate your efforts on that."

Commissioner George Patterson agreed.

"This helps everybody," he said. "The people of Rock Hill (and) the people who pay taxes."

The bulk of the money, about $3.7 million, will go to pay off the Rock Hill School District's bond levy.

Rock Hill Superintendent Lloyd Evans and board member Wanda Jenkins attended the commission meeting and expressed excitement about the prospect of paying off the district's bond levy 23 years early.

"It's great to put this indebtedness behind us," Evans said. "I'm very pleased our county worked out an agreement whereby the property owners can benefit from this new plant coming in. This is a boost to our economy, and it will be a great asset for years to come."

"This is going to be great for our community," Jenkins said. "And most of all, this benefits the children."

Hamilton Township will collect $42,258 from Thursday's check. Most of the money will go to its volunteer fire department.

"This will bring our budget up to where we can afford better training and better equipment," Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Goff said. "It will mean better service to our community. This is a Godsend to us."

Goff said the township's one-mil tax levy, introduced 15 or 20 years ago, was barely covering the rising cost of providing fire service.

"Back when we started the levy, equipment didn't cost nearly what it does now," Goff said. "A fire truck that used to cost $30,000 now costs $300,000."

Goff praised the Duke energy officials as "a terrific group of people."

Hamilton Township Trustee Bill Blankenship agreed.

"They've been great to work with," Blankenship said. "Any time we needed to talk, they were available. They call us to check for problems we might have, concerns we might have. I think it's great how they've cared about the community. We're fortunate, very fortunate, to have them here. We're happy to have them in Hamilton Township."

The issuance of the abatement check drew a large crowd of courthouse officials, chamber of commerce and business representatives and area residents.

Three people who attended the Thursday meeting expressed opposition to having Duke Energy as a neighbor.

Willis Ridgeway, who lives on Kevin Street in Ironton, said he fears the plant will produce pollution that could bring down property values, and create problems for area residents.

"Ironton won't get any of this money, but the pollution problems will be ours," Ridgeway said.

Both Stephens and Blankenship countered that the state EPA reviewed the plans for both effluent and air emissions, and has given Duke the necessary air and water quality permits. Blankenship added the plant will be operated in accordance with EPA guidelines.

"I live within 200 yards of this plant," Blankenship said. "Mr. Goff lives across the street. We back this plant 100 percent."

Local leaders are hoping that the Duke construction is only the beginning of an economic revival in an area that has seen its share of hard times during the last decade.

Some expressed hope that the Calpine plant will soon follow suit and

build another merchant plant nearby.

Stephens mused about the changes that are taking place on the strip of land between the Ohio River and U.S. 52.

"Who would've thought there would be traffic jams in Hanging Rock?" he asked.