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City, County Announce Agreement To Buy Part Of Wilkinson Farm From KU

Total Price Could Be More Than $19.9 Million

The Harrodsburg Herald/Robert Moore
John Trisler and Mike Willand of the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Industrial Development Authority and Judge-Executive Sarah Steele and Mayor Sam Carr stand with a map of the proposed industrial development site.

Robert Moore
Herald Staff

The Mercer County Fiscal Court and the City of Harrodsburg are looking to buy at least half of the Wilkinson Farm on US 127.

On Monday, Aug. 14, both the fiscal court and the city commission voted to enter a purchase agreement with Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities Company. The county and city are looking to buy the southern portion of the farm, 858 acres, with the potential for buying another 100 acres on the northern portion.

The price is $20,800 per acre, which officials say would come to more than $19.9 million if all 958 acres were purchased.

The city and county also voted to allow Dennis G. Howard II of Howard Law PLLC in Lexington, who filed a motion on their behalf with the Public Service Commission to intervene in KU’s proposal to retire nearly one-third of the utility provider’s fleet generation by 2028 specifically objecting to KU’s announced intention to build a 120-megawatt solar array at the Wilkinson Farm location.

The agreement requires the city and county to withdraw their opposition.. It also includes a stipulation for screening if the solar farm is still built. The agreement is pending KU’s approval.

In their official announcement—signed by Mercer County Judge-Executive Sarah Steele, Harrodsburg Mayor Sam Carr and Mike Willand, the executive director of the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Industrial Authority—officials said they “feel the purchase of this land will allow a great development opportunity for the community.”

They say the county and city have been working with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development “to begin marketing and development of this property to promote job growth in Mercer County and the entire region.”

“We are excited that Mercer County has the opportunity to acquire potentially thousands of jobs, allowing for economic growth of our community,” the officials wrote. “This project will allow for prosperity for generations to come.”

On Monday, Steele, Carr and Willand met with the Harrodsburg Herald to discuss the acquisition. They were unable to give details on the bonding. The fiscal court voted last week to initiate a bonding request for potential development with the Department of Local Government. A public hearing will have to be held on the bonds, but Steele did note that the typical term for the bonds are 20 to 30 years.

Officials say the site being purchased has railroad access, but will need more critical infrastructure for industrial development, including an access road, sewer, water and power. For months, Willand, Steele and John Trisler, former judge-executive and current chairman of the board of directors for the industrial development authority, have touted the site’s potential for industrial development, including a factory that could employ thousands of people. Asked if they had a client lined up for the site, Steele would only say, “We have several interested parties.”

“There have been several site visits,” Willand said. “There is considerable interest.”

“This whole thing has been about jobs,” Trisler said.

A factory employing thousands would rank among the biggest in Kentucky, and would have a huge economic impact on the community. It would also have a big impact on the local schools. On Monday, it was pointed out the Mercer County Board of Education is planning to build an elementary school that is smaller than the current facility. “The school is not directly involved,” Steele said, although she said Mercer School Superintendent Jason Booher serves on the industrial development authority’s board of directors.

Carr was appointed mayor in July and has had to scramble to get caught up. “I came late to the dance but you all have done a wonderful job,” Carr said Monday.

“This is just a fantastic opportunity for Mercer County and for the surrounding community,” said Willand. “It’s been a remarkable team effort.”

At Monday night’s meeting of the Mercer Coalition for Responsible Development—a local group who have held several meetings to discuss the issue—some in the audience voiced outrage at the deal, especially the news that the city and county were no longer opposing the development of an industrial scale solar facility.

“Mercer County needs farm land!” exclaimed Danny Woods. “We don’t need cotton picking solar panels!”

Brian Steele, president of the coalition, said the county could not keep the Wilkinson Farm as an agricultural site. “That ship sailed a long time ago,” Brian Steele said.

Some in the audience Monday night also objected to the city and county financing the purchase through bonds.

“You’re talking about debt, that’s what you’re talking about,” said one audience member. “$18 million of debt.”

Toban Barlow, a Harrodsburg resident who spoke against the solar facility at a PSC meeting held in Lexington on July 31, noted no representatives from the fiscal court or the coalition at that meeting.

“There was nobody from your group there,” Barlow said. “There were no magistrates.”

Andrea Gross of the coalition said no one had the time or opportunity to attend. Gross noted the coalition had gathered 115 letters of opposition from local residents as well as 834 signatures on a petition. “We’re all volunteers, we all have jobs, we all have families,” Gross said. “We’re citizens just like you all.”

Judge Steele, who was present at the meeting, defended the purchase.

“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Steele said.

That was not good enough for Barlow and some of the others. “I call it capitulation,” Barlow said. “I bid you all good night.”

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