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TUNICA, MS (WWBT)- In the race for governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe is back. The man who spent millions of dollars only to fall short in the 2009 Democratic primary this time has the nomination already secured.
McAuliffe is selling himself to the people of Virginia as a businessman and job creator. He has spent the last four years investing and promoting a green car company that he promised would revolutionize the car industry and bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to America.
But McAuliffe’s dream, and what was once considered to be a strong asset in his campaign, has become a liability. It is a liability on two fronts: one, because he chose to build his manufacturing plant in Mississippi instead of Virginia, the state where he hopes to be governor, and two, because his grand plans in economically depressed Northern Mississippi have yet to materialize.
In fact, for most people in the sleepy town of Tunica, life before Greentech’s much celebrated July 2012 roll out is not much different than it is today.
"Everyone is friendly, everyone is nice,” said Patricia Savley who lives in Tunica. “Everybody knows each other. It is small town."
Tunica is a small town with a big unemployment rate of 20.9%. It is the highest in Mississippi and one of the highest in America.
"We need more jobs and we just don't have them," said Sherry Carodine, who works as an aide in a local nursing home.
Tunica has long been in search of hope. They thought they found it in McAuliffe.
"Now we start at full factory production,” McAuliffe said at the launch of the Greentech’s first manufacturing facility, an elevator factory the company bought in nearby Horn Lake, MS.
“At full capacity,” he promised, “we can make a car an hour."
The July 2012 roll out was impressive. It featured former President Bill Clinton and Mississippi's then-Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican. The plan was to start full production in Horn Lake and immediately begin construction of a massive, permanent plant in Tunica.
That was nine months ago. Today the site in Tunica is an empty field with a Greentech sign out front. The only sign of construction is a makeshift gravel driveway. It is, for the most part, a large, empty space filled with overgrown grass.
Barbara Tuchel worries that is all it will ever be.
"I'd like to know where his plant is,” she said while surveying the empty lot. “Where the thousand jobs are."
Tuchel is part of an independent group demanding transparency in Tunica's government. She believes her county's board was swayed by McAuliffe and his Chinese partners to invest state money in a project that had no hope of succeeding.
Greentech and Tunica County received a combined $5 million in loans to develop the Tunica site. In order to make good on those loans they must invest $60 million in the manufacturing plant and employ 350 people by December 31, 2014.
"Greentech has done everything it has told us it would," she said in an emailed statement.
But with the clock ticking on 2014, Tuchel has become less and less convinced their plan will work.
"It didn't seem feasible,” she said. “We do not have a skilled employment base here."
Tuchel’s group has convinced a newly elected board of supervisors to commission an independent audit of the Greentech project. She is convinced that the Greentech deal, which forced the County to take out loans to cover the purchase of the property, helped lead to a significant tax hike during their last budget negotiations.
Brooks Taylor, publisher of the local weekly paper the Tunica Times, is as skeptical as Tuchel. She has covered a number of promised economic development projects that turn out to be nothing. She compares the Greentech venture to serious conversations local leaders had to bring a NASCAR track to the county. It never happened.
"We are just a small community and this is a big company,” Taylor said. “It seemed a little pie in the sky."
Mississippi’s Development Authority is only expecting 350 jobs by the end of 2014. McAuliffe pledged much more and much sooner.
Here are just some of his publically-stated goals:
*Greentech will create 5 thousand American jobs, 900 by the end of 2012.
*Greentech will start full production in the fall of 2012. At full production they will produce a car an hour.
*Greentech will eventually produce 100 thousand “green energy” cars.
*Greentech will build a 300 to 400 thousand square foot manufacturing plant in Tunica.
At this point there is no evidence any of this has occurred.
The promise of jobs has been his most frequent claim. In a January of 2011 interview on NBC12 First at 4, his hopes were very high.
"Ryan,” he said to me. “We'll create jobs thousands of jobs."
It is difficult to pin down exactly how many of those jobs have actually been created. Company officials refuse to give an exact number, but various reports peg the Greentech workforce at 50 to 75 employees in Mississippi and 10 to 15 at the corporate headquarters in Virginia. McAuliffe himself puts the number at 100 in Horn Lake.
As for the number of cars being produced, that also appears to be far less than the “car an hour” projection McAuliffe gave last summer.
Company spokesperson Marianne McInerney can't say exactly how many cars have been produced, but she told the Mississippi Business Journal that it is in the "hundreds."
During our visit to Mississippi we went in search of evidence of some sort of production. The company did not let us inside their storefront office in Tunica, or the plant in Horn Lake. We have a standing request to tour both facilities and at this point company officials have not responded to that inquiry.
While the company continues to keep the specifics of their operation behind closed doors, government leaders who helped negotiate the deal did not offer much insight either. Several town and county officials responded to our request for interviews by sending us to Lyn Arnold, the President of the Tunica Chamber of Commerce.
Arnold negotiated the company's memorandum of understanding and has traveled to China with the Greentech leaders. She has not responded to our repeated requests for an interview.
One of Arnold’s key allies in attracting Greentech to Northern Mississippi was Mayor Nat Baker of Horn Lake. Baker also traveled to China with McAuliffe and Greentech leaders and has met with them during lobbying trips to Washington, D.C.
Baker granted us a lengthy on camera interview, but couldn’t tell us much about what is happening at the Greentech plant in his city.
"I know that they have been testing some cars over there because I see them riding around out there,” he said. “Other than that I do not know."
Those cars Baker talked about appeared after our cameras showed up outside the Horn Lake plant. It was the only physical evidence we saw of an electric car production.
Mayor Baker has not been inside the plant since the press event with Clinton and Barbour back in July. Part of the plant is still home to an elevator testing facility run by the company Thyssen Krupp. According to DeSoto County officials, Krupp still receives tax bills on factory capital. Krupp is not the only company working out of the Horn Lake site. Baker said a local auto dealership that auctions cars will often store large groups of vehicles in the parking lot prior to their auctions.
Baker knows several people who work for Greentech and said they have never missed a paycheck and enjoy working for the company. He said from what he is told, not many cars are being produced but there is a lot of “sweeping of the floor.”
Overall, Baker feels that the company has positively contributed to his community.
"They have created a job market and right now everything seems to be running fine over there."
Greentech maintains that they are moving forward and have plans for full production in Northern Mississippi. Their goals however have changed quite a bit since that initial launch. In mid-April they announced a partnership with the Chinese car maker JAC to assemble an all-electric five passenger sedan that will travel 100 miles on a single charge.
The pilot order is for two-thousand cars to be built at the Horn Lake plant and sold in North America. This latest production target is set to begin in the fall of 2013.
At Greentech’s roll out in July of 2012, the plan was to build two seat MyCars that would travel at a max speed of 35 miles an hour.
Greentech also plans to expand the operation at “another facility,” presumably the still-not-built Tunica plant, and hire 200 additional workers. According to the parameters of the Greentech-MDA agreement, 350 workers must be gainfully employed by the end of 2014.
MDA officials said the company has complied with the agreement to this point, but could not say the last time they toured either Greentech facility.
“The company has until December 31, 2014, to meet the investment and job commitments outlined in the MOU, and the MOU does not outline benchmarks prior to that deadline,” said Williams. “The deadline is the benchmark.”
Whatever Greentech eventually becomes, their future will be without the man who spearheaded their move to the United States. Terry McAuliffe quietly stepped down as company chairman in December, his campaign says, to focus full time on running for governor.We sat down for a lengthy interview with McAuliffe to get his perspective on Greentech. His interview will air Tuesday on NBC12 News at 6.