- ONCE THERE WAS CHEERING: Mayor Claybaker speaks at the groundbreaking. Rep. Mike Ross and Sen. Mark Pryor are seated behind him.
An update: The outlook for the proposed wood-pellet, clean-energy plant at Camden is no brighter than when the Times reported last summer. If anything, the shadows have lengthened.
"Nothing's happened on the Phoenix plant," Camden Mayor Chris Claybaker said in a telephone inverview last week. "I'm not really expecting anything."
Some 400 people attended a groundbreaking in 2009 for a Phoenix Renewable Energy plant at Camden, a city badly in need of new industry. Nearly a thousand Camdenites had lost their jobs when International Paper Company closed its plant in 2005. A $180 million Phoenix plant was supposed to be built on the old IP site. Promoters said the plant would produce wood pellets for fuel. It would employ up to 60 people, backers said, and create 450 more jobs in related industries in the area. But by June of 2010, the project was faltering badly. The date scheduled for construction to begin passed uneventfully. The state securities commissioner found that Phoenix was selling stock in violation of state law and ordered it to stop.
Mayor Claybaker had been an early and enthusiastic booster of the Phoenix project. Even as storm warnings appeared, "I tried to be optimistic," he said. "Even up to a month ago, I was being given encouragement that it was still happening. But I haven't heard anything since the new Securities Department complaint and the guilty plea by [Stephen] Walker."
Back in May of 2010, state Securities Commissioner A. Heath Abshure had ordered Phoenix; its chief operating officer, Stephen R. Walker of Hot Springs, and its chief executive officer, Samuel L. Anderson Jr. of Hot Springs, to stop selling unregistered securities and stop making fraudulent use of investors' money.
On Feb. 28, 2011, Abshure filed suit against the same three in Pulaski Circuit Court, saying, in effect, that his earlier order had been flouted. He asked the court to order the three defendants to stop engaging in fraudulent activity and stop selling unregistered securities. According to the suit, Walker, Anderson and Phoenix told investors their money was needed to help build the wood pellet plant in Camden, but a portion of the money was used instead to pay old debts owed by Walker and by an entity known as America's Past Time Park of North Little Rock (APPNLR).
"APPNLR was created by Walker in 2007 for the stated purpose of developing a baseball park complex in North Little Rock, Arkansas," Abshure's suit says. "Although Walker obtained over $500,000 from investors to build a baseball park complex, no land was ever purchased, no baseball fields were built, and a large amount of the investors' money was given or directed by Walker to another company controlled by Walker, Renaissance Holding Group ..." Some of Phoenix investors' money went to pay people who'd invested in the ballpark project, the suit said.
Phoenix investors were not told, the suit said, that "Walker had been charged in June 2008 in Garland County, Arkansas, with the crime of theft of property by deception; that the theft by deception occurred when Walker, through fraudulent means, entered into a real estate contract and took $250,000 from an individual for the purchase of real property that Walker did not own; or that the money from the real estate investor was not returned by Walker." Nor were investors told that Walker had filed for bankruptcy, the suit said.
The state securities commissioner cannot file criminal actions. He can, however, refer suspected criminal violations to the appropriate prosecuting attorney. A Securities Department spokesman declined to comment on that subject.
U.S. attorneys can file criminal actions for violation of federal laws, however. At about the same time Abshure was filing his civil suit in Little Rock, Walker was pleading guilty to tax evasion in federal District Court in Hot Springs. Tax evasion carries a maximum penalty of five years. U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson will sentence Walker after the completion of a pre-sentence investigation, which usually takes about six weeks.
"It's really disappointing," Mayor Claybaker said of Phoenix. "I liked those guys and I thought they had a good idea."
He sees a silver lining. Because of the Phoenix project, Claybaker said, the old International Paper property, now owned by the Camden Area Industrial Development Corporation, has been enrolled in the state brownfield program, which encourages new industry to use old industrial property instead of green space. "I think that will open up the property for some new industry," Claybaker said.
Actually, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, a little work remains to be done by the owner before the property is given final brownfield approval.