A plan unveiled last week to expand Bluegrass Station with a 2,500-acre industrial park and an 8,000-foot runway is likely dead because of opposition from Bourbon County officials.
Bourbon Judge-Executive Mike Williams said Tuesday that he appears to be the only Fiscal Court member who supports the project, and he expects it to be killed at Thursday night’s meeting in Paris. The Fiscal Court would have to approve and fund land acquisition for the project, likely through condemnation.
“The political reality is this will not move forward,” Williams said. “It is no longer a viable project. We’ll move on to the next opportunity.”
State officials who manage Bluegrass Station, a defense-industry complex and former military post that dates to 1941, approached Williams with the expansion idea last summer, but asked him to keep it quiet. The Fiscal Court’s seven magistrates were not told about it until Williams called a special meeting Wednesday morning. The public was informed Thursday in The Bourbon County Citizen newspaper.
Steve Collins, a retired Army major general who runs Bluegrass Station, said the plan was proposed at the request of a tenant, which wanted to outfit C-130 cargo planes for special operations but needed a runway and two hangars. Lockheed Martin and its contractors employ 1,700 of the 2,500 people who work at Bluegrass Station.
Collins said the expansion would have created 350 jobs by 2020. If the new industrial park were filled, he said, it could have created about 3,500 jobs by 2027, but there were no guarantees.
Collins could not be reached for comment after Williams said the project was likely dead.
John Bevington, commissioner of business development in the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, also could not be reached for comment. He had told The Bourbon County Citizen that if the expansion were built “the potential for attracting high-quality jobs is phenomenal.”
News of the project sparked backlash from area residents, outraged that they could be forced to sell their land to the county, or live or farm near an industrial park where the noisy four-propeller cargo planes would be coming and going. Other opponents were concerned that Bourbon County would be taking on a huge debt to buy the land and fund related infrastructure with no guarantee of a return on the investment.
More than 200 people jammed a volunteer fire hall near Clintonville for a meeting about the project Saturday, and a “Stop the BS Expansion” Facebook page was created to rally opposition.
Williams said the land acquisition was estimated at $20 million. He said the state indicated it could loan the county about $5 million, and there were discussions with local banks about borrowing the rest. Williams said he would want to minimize any impact on the county’s bonding capacity, which is $21 million.
Collins said the runway would likely have been built by a public-private partnership, then deeded to the county. To recoup its investment, the county would have sold land in the industrial park to Lockheed Martin and other potential tenants, he said.
“We were blindsided with the whole project,” said Mark Offutt, the Clintonville district magistrate whose own farm, which has been in his wife’s family since the 1890s, would have been taken. He said they have no intention of ever selling the land.
“I’m all for growing the county, for smart growth,” Offutt said. “But I could never vote to throw folks off their land and their homes and their livelihoods for a dollar when we have other options.”
Aside from the “land grab” issue, Offutt said, the fiscal side of the deal didn’t add up to him. There were no guarantees of future tenants or long-term jobs, and nothing to keep Lockheed Martin from deciding at some point it wanted to do business elsewhere.
“Nothing about this was good,” he said. “It could have bankrupted the county.”
Ike VanMeter, who owns 1,500 of the 2,500 affected acres, said he wasn’t interested in selling his land, and he didn’t know of any others who were, either.
VanMeter also criticized the secrecy of the project and the high risk it posed for Bourbon County.
“It seems like this was done with very little transparency,” he said. “Pie in the sky, ‘if you build it they will come’ is a risky proposition.”