Cementing a Deal

A giant quarry and the world's largest cement kiln are being welcomed by Ste. Genevieve County. But the operation may leave St. Louis gasping for air.

Jack Geiler can still pinpoint the place where he bagged his first buck, back in 1946. He's hunted turkey for years in these parts, too. After a snowfall, the land sloping down to the Mississippi River looks like a rumpled towel, each ravine folding into the next, from Isle du Bois Creek south to Wolf Hollow and beyond. Not a flat spot to be found.

"It's some beautiful country down here," says Geiler, who turns 76 this month. "I just hate to see it tore up." As he drives his white Dodge pickup down Brickeys Road past Needmore, he recalls when electricity was belatedly introduced to the tiny ridgetop burg in 1951. Before then, Geiler's uncle hung kerosene lanterns along a nearby stretch of the river to help guide passing towboats and packets. With the exception of a few small quarry operations, things have remained pretty much the same in northern Ste. Genevieve County. Roads are rare and the woods deep. But there are signs of change in the offing.

Out on Highway 61, the Beacon Café has expanded in anticipation of a business boom. There's talk of a new quarry and cement kiln. Down a ways, a new asphalt road is being cut up into the hills by a local excavating company. Geiler's grandson hired on with the firm as a diesel mechanic. "One of these days you won't see them hills over there," Geiler says. "They'll all be leveled out."

Presiding Commissioner Dennis "Toupie" Huck says residents welcome the Holnam project: "Everybody you talk to in the street or the coffee shop says, "Don't let this get away.'"
Presiding Commissioner Dennis "Toupie" Huck says residents welcome the Holnam project: "Everybody you talk to in the street or the coffee shop says, "Don't let this get away.'"
Presiding Commissioner Dennis "Toupie" Huck says residents welcome the Holnam project: "Everybody you talk to in the street or the coffee shop says, "Don't let this get away.'"
Mark Gilliland
Presiding Commissioner Dennis "Toupie" Huck says residents welcome the Holnam project: "Everybody you talk to in the street or the coffee shop says, "Don't let this get away.'"

At the White Grill in downtown Festus and Laddy Boy's diner out on I-55, Geiler picks up the latest scuttlebutt. Word has it that the locals are resigned to the project. Indeed, most of them see it as a good thing for the area's economy. "I get around a lot, talk to a lot of people," says Geiler. "I really can't say that anybody is concerned about any harm that it's going to do to the population of the county. Most of the people who owned that land weren't using it, and they were kind of wanting to get rid of it. They offered such a big price, people just couldn't turn it down. Everybody is satisfied, and nobody is concerned. What they're looking at is the jobs that it's going to make available and the benefit that the county is going to get off it."


Sixteen miles to the south, at the courthouse in the town of Ste. Genevieve, the county's elected officials are huddled for their biweekly meeting. The 504-square-mile county is governed by two district commissioners and a presiding commissioner, who is elected at large. The three serve about 17,000 residents on a voluntary, part-time basis. The topic of the morning's discussion is Holnam Inc.'s plan to build a massive cement plant in the northern tip of the county. The commissioners support the project and are quick to note that their constituents feel the same way.

"We've had very little negative reaction," says Dennis "Toupie" Huck, the presiding commissioner. "Everybody you talk to in the street or the coffee shop says, 'Don't let this get away.'" Barry Lower, Holnam's project manager, lauds the community for convincing Holnam's board of directors to approve the project. Late last month, Lower told the Ste. Genevieve Herald: "I have to give a lot of credit and recognition to the Ste. Genevieve residents and community leaders. Their support for the project was received enthusiastically by our board and by our parent company, Holderbank. It added a lot to the project's favorable review by management." Directors of Holderbank Financière Glaris Ltd. of Switzerland formally approved the project on Dec. 21.

Holnam's warm reception in the county may be attributed to the company's own advance work, including the formation of a citizens' advisory group. Unbeknown to the commission, Holnam, a leading cement producer, had been scouting the county since 1997. Over the next two years, Holnam -- with the help of a Perryville, Mo., survey company -- quietly acquired nearly 4,000 acres of rugged timberland bordering the river. "When they came in and talked to us initially, they had already secured a couple thousand acres," says Commissioner Jeffrey L. Roth. "We had heard there were some transactions going on, and we thought something was up, but we didn't know what."

After they had the property in hand, Holnam struck a deal with the county commissioners to use industrial-development bonds to pay for construction of the $600 million facility. By having the county finance construction, the cement giant gets a ready source of low-interest financing while reducing its future property-tax obligations to the county for the first 20 years of operation.

Although the county has never backed an industrial-development project of this scale before, the commissioners are confident that Holnam's ambitious plan represents an unprecedented opportunity for economic growth. "I see it as a windfall," says Huck. Commissioner Linda L. Hermann adds: "I feel fortunate that they want to come here and be a part of our community."

In lieu of taxes, the county would receive an annual stipend of $2 million from Holnam for each of the first three years of the plant's operation, with incremental increases thereafter totaling more than $49 million over the next two decades. The county also expects to benefit from the 200-plus jobs that would be created, as well as additional revenue brought in as a result of the plant's $10 million annual payroll.

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