Henderson business leaders weigh in after major corporation announces move

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HENDERSON, Ky. (WEHT) — Economic and business leaders in Henderson are weighing in after Big Rivers Electric Corp. announced it would leave the city for Owensboro. 

Five Henderson businessmen tried to negotiate a settlement between Big Rivers Electric and Henderson Municipal Power and Light (HMPL)  involving the 2019 closure of the Station Two Power Plant in Sebree, Ky. 

HMPL and Big Rivers could not agree on who was responsible for paying their portion of the cleanup at the power plant. 

“Maybe the people that have been involved in it so long that can’t get beyond the hate and distrust, maybe there need to be other people added,” explained retired businessman and consultant Joel Hopper. 

Hopper was among the people who helped negotiate how best to move forward between the two parties after the Station Two power plant shut down in 2019.

Even though an agreement could not be reached regarding the now closed power plant, Big Rivers Electric Corp. put an offer up to purchase HMPL in 2018 and again in late 2020. 

“Our role was too try and reach a settlement agreement with all the issues that surround the contractual language with Big Rivers and HMPL and the only thing when we took the offer letter to the mayor, the only thing we suggested – was it looks attractive, but we don’t know, our only suggestion was go look and see,” explained Hopper. 

Hopper says the process could have been handled much differently by HMPL and the city. The City of Henderson is now poised to lose almost 120 jobs and around  $70 million dollars a year from the Big Rivers move to Owensboro. 

Utility and City Commissioners met in a closed off executive session late last year to vote down the possible sale of HMPL to Big Rivers Electric.

“It’s been noted by elected officials, those in attendance that 8 out of the 10 people involved, the HMPL commissioners and city commissioners, had no desire whatsoever to enter into an agreement with Big Rivers,” Hopper said. “I think the decision was made with really no data and certainly no empirical data, there was such a mistrust and emotional baggage that surrounds this relationship, that’s what we think it was based on.”

City officials including Mayor Steve Austin have never made public why exactly the sale of HMPL to Big Rivers Electric never moved forward.

But Big Rivers Electric officials say they tried working with the city and HMPL. Big Rivers Electric CEO Bob Berry told Eyewitness News that Mayor Steve Austin called him after the October 2020 offer and told him he was excited about the news and looked forward to getting a deal done. However, Berry said Mayor Austin called back just days later and said they needed to slow down on the possible deal to buy HMPL.

Economic leaders in Henderson say they tried encouraging conversations between HMPL and Big Rivers over the summer – but it ultimately broke down. 

“Obviously we’re disappointed that Big Rivers is leaving our community,” said Henderson Economic Development Executive Director Missy Vanderpool. “They have been a part of our community for 50 years. I think some of our small businesses will feel it day to day, but it’s obviously a big disappointment to see them leave. We hate to see anyone leave, but going forward we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Henderson leaders told Eyewitness News in December they’re already in the process of replacing the major hit to the city’s economy.

Officials say they’re working on attracting new industry to the city to make up for tens of millions of dollars that will be lost when Big Rivers moves to Owensboro. 

“We are also working to make sure to keep the industry we have so we don’t have a situation like we have now with Big Rivers, and move forward with our existing industries, they play an important part to our community,” Vanderpool said. 

Hopper said the entire situation basically boiled down to a lack of communication between the two parties. He said he wishes more could have been done to keep Big Rivers Electric Corp. headquarters in Henderson.

Big Rivers Electric Corp. spokeswoman Jennifer Keach said the company plans to move to Owensboro sometime in the next 18 to 24 months.

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(This story was originally published on January 11, 2021)

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