FRANKFORT — Kentucky lawmakers are putting more pressure on the company formerly known as Braidy Industries to finally deliver on its five-year-old promise to build an aluminum rolling mill near Ashland in Eastern Kentucky.
Senators voted Wednesday morning to advance legislation that would direct the state to take action to recoup by the end of this year its $15 million direct investment in the company, which renamed itself Unity Aluminum after it severed ties with founder and former CEO Craig Bouchard.
"I want to be very clear … that I don't want the commonwealth to get $15 million. I want Ashland to get an aluminum mill. I think that's what we've all wanted," said Sen. Chris McDaniel, who's following through on a pledge he made last year by sponsoring this proposal.
"But, unfortunately, I think the feelings of frustration, and promises that have proven not to be true, has reached a boiling point," McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said. "And I think it is time to begin to apply additional levels of pressure."
The state legislature greenlit the $15 million investment in Braidy in 2017, at the behest of former Gov. Matt Bevin. At that point, the company planned to build a huge aluminum rolling mill and open it in 2020.
However, the company has struggled to secure enough financing to actually build the project. The price tag for the mill has gone up as well, with Unity's website indicating it is now expected to require $2.2 billion.
The state previously extended Braidy's deadline to obtain certain financing as part of an agreement concerning its $15 million investment. However, Senate Bill 48 — the legislation senators advanced Wednesday — would prohibit further extensions beyond the current deadline of March 31.
The bill also would direct the state to take steps to recover the $15 million, plus any relevant interest, penalties or fees, by Dec. 31. If the money isn't recouped by then, the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development would be required to take the matter to court.
Lawmakers of both parties, including Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, showed support for this legislation during Wednesday's Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee meeting.
They also agreed with McDaniel that they'd rather see the long-awaited mill actually get built than take taxpayers' money back from the company. There were high hopes for this proposed factory, because it was projected to create over 1,000 construction jobs and over 550 full-time jobs in Eastern Kentucky, which has long struggled economically.
Stivers indicated Wednesday he has reason to be positive about the mill's prospects despite the company's past troubles, although he said he couldn't offer details because he signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Stivers told The Courier Journal he signed the NDA about two weeks ago and did not know of any other legislators who have done the same other than Sen. David Givens, the Senate's president pro tempore. But he said "there’s going to be further discussions."
Stivers said he is now "pretty optimistic" the massive and much-delayed project actually will be constructed, as he thinks "it’s moving forward in a good way."
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“As you heard everyone on the committee say, the biggest thing is we want to see this mill and are supportive of this mill happening, but we have to make sure it's done right,” Stivers said. “And that's what this (bill) does, it just keeps the focus on that.”
McDaniel told The Courier Journal it is his understanding, from what he was told Wednesday morning, that "there are some publicly traded companies that have interest in this deal, but they can't disclose until things are more advanced."
Beyond that, McDaniel – who said he refused to sign an NDA Unity offered him months ago – added he doesn’t have any more information "that I could necessarily tell you was truthful and actionable."
McDaniel has been one of the largest critics of Braidy in the legislature. Asked if he is as optimistic as Stivers about the project happening, he said: "I want to be… I’m an optimistic pessimist."
In a statement to The Courier Journal Wednesday, a Unity spokesperson said: "Unity Aluminum continues to work tirelessly to bring this transformational project to fruition. We are encouraged by the progress we have made and are excited about our future in Eastern Kentucky."
The Senate committee voted Wednesday to allow McDaniel's Braidy bill to move ahead in the lawmaking process.
Senators indicated they won't necessarily rush to pass this bill as their annual legislative session (which ends in mid-April) continues, given the possibility Unity could be making progress on financing the mill.
"But our confidence has been greatly eroded," McDaniel said. "I think we're willing to have some patience through the course of session, but I don't know that that patience will necessarily extend until April the 15th."
Although Bevin forged the state's original deal with Braidy, Gov. Andy Beshear is now in charge of the Economic Development Cabinet. He told The Courier Journal Wednesday he has not personally signed an NDA with Unity.
Concerning the mill's future, Beshear said: "I don't have enough information to be optimistic or pessimistic at the moment. I know that there have been numerous times where the company has claimed that they are on the cusp of making things happen. I'll believe it when I see it."
As for McDaniel's proposed legislation, Beshear said he understands where the senator is coming from but would want to talk with him directly about it. The governor also criticized the Bevin administration and Bevin's former economic development secretary, Terry Gill, who's now Unity interim president.
"I will say the last administration, and then-Economic Development Cabinet Secretary now-president of Braidy (Gill), signed away virtually every ounce of security that the state had, and recovering because of their actions will be very difficult," he said.
Morgan Watkins is The Courier Journal's chief political reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @morganwatkins26.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: State legislation looks to recover Braidy Industries investment