When I was just getting out of elementary school I got to be a neighborhood friend with a wonderful girl named Emeline Willingham. She was a member of a quite prominent family on Lookout Mountain and, being a few years older than me, we never held hands or kissed but I’ll always treasure how much fun it was to be among those in her crowd back when we grew up together. And, just to think, today there is a 167-foot Italian-made yacht, one that cost more than $50 million, with simply “Emeline” painted on its stern.
“Emmy” – all her friends still remember her as such -- married Franklin Haney, perhaps the greatest swashbuckler of a real estate developer America has ever known. Trust me, if he ever writes an uncensored copy of “The Art of the Deal,” the first printing needs to be in no less than 30 languages and I’ll read the whole thing in the same night.
I’ve never known Franklin Haney, only in passing at best, but his simple beginnings – his daddy worked foundries – but his “guts” (read ‘courage’), his heart (he shies from nothing) and his intense loyalty to his friends factors strongly with me. I remember one time what his old fraternity brother said, “Franklin has always been controversial, but he has been a great citizen of Chattanooga and is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant financial minds I’ve ever known,” said Signal Mountain’s Jim Hall, indeed a champion in his own right.
“I saw him go up against people on Wall Street who thought they were taking advantage of this hick from Tennessee … and Franklin ended up cleaning them out,” he added with unabashed admiration.
So, in my mind Franklin is easily among the most legendary sons of Tennessee who ever lived, and while he has amassed a fortune in the billions, the one thing I adore is that he’s still conquering mountains with each new day. He’s got a bunch of detractors – all the sizzling types do – but I found it wonderfully comical last week when it was learned he’d offered President Trump’s jilted lawyer – Michael Cohen -- $10 million to help sway Trump for a $5 billion federal loan.
Man, talk about moxie … but, then again, Haney may be a staunch Democrat but he very publicly gave Trump a $1 million donation to make sure Donald’s Inaugural bash had enough bright lights.
The whole thing centers around the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant that has been in mothballs for the last 30 years since TVA gave up on the plan. The plant is huge (1,600 acres) and is just about 60 miles down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga in tiny Hollywood, Ala. Haney’s Nuclear Development LLC has skillfully navigated a way to buy it for $111 million after $6 billion (with a “b” back in 1988) of construction expense went south many years ago.
The scope of the project is almost beyond imagination – it will take an estimated 6,000 construction workers the next five years before they can light the first match – so Haney is seeking $5 billion in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to help defray costs.
Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama, whose district includes the plant, sent a letter to Trump in support of the loan and, to give Mo’s letter some real punch, Alabama Congressmen Robert Aderholt, Bradley Byrne and Martha Roby and Tennessee Congressman Chuck Fleischman also signed it.
So, finally, here’s the good part. One of my favorite Southern storytellers is John Archibald, a very gifted columnist for the consortium of newspapers in Alabama called AL.com. I read him all the time and really enjoy his style, his thought, and his punch.
On Sunday John outdid himself and, since Franklin still calls Chattanooga his home town, this one is “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”
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“YOU GOT TROUBLE, ALABAMA, AND ITS NAME IS HANEY”
(NOTE: This is an opinion column that appeared on AL.com on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018 and was written by John Archibald.)
Damn, Alabama. Wake the hell up.
Franklin Haney - Bible salesman turned billionaire -- is not in the charity biz. He's a businessman, a win-at-all-costs, buy-anybody-he's-gotta-buy Music Man who learned long ago that a hefty campaign gift can offer a better return than Apple stock.
He buys politicians like the latest iPhones, and it doesn't matter their make or model. He slathered money on Barack Obama and Donald Trump, funded Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's inaugural and the dark money group that paid his sweetheart.
Haney's tried to buy every politician who ever had influence over anything he wanted. He gave $130,000 to have his way with the Birmingham City Council, which is a LOT of money in a council race.
Asked about it, he said the most Franklin Haney thing ever:
"It's not a lot of money to me."
Now the Music Man is being hailed as a conquering hero in North Alabama because he slipped in, bought the old Bellefonte Nuclear Reactor at auction for a song, and promised to bring jobs with his own grit and money and persistence.
Aw, man. There's trouble. Right here in River City. That starts with T and that rhymes with C and that stands for ...
If, by some twist of fate, Haney manages to grease the regulatory skids for approval, get all the loans he needs to make it happen, and secure all the infrastructure to get energy to all the customers he claims he will have, this won't be a Franklin Haney project.
It will be a deal brought to you by ... you. And me.
We're gonna pay. Oh, we're gonna pay.
Because Haney has courted and supported every politician who could help him get exactly what he wanted, which is access to public money. He envisioned a monster project with a big potential payoff and no risk because the big cash would be paid by taxpayers.
Think about this.
The Tennessee Valley Authority dumped billions -- up to $19 billion in today's dollars by some estimates -- into building the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant before the bosses threw up their hands and shut the whole deal down in 1988.
They couldn't make it work. The demand wasn't there. The economics didn't add up. They shuttered the whole thing, stripped it of parts, and left it like an old car on blocks beside the Tennessee River.
There were weak attempts to get it going again. But safety was a concern, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan didn't help matters.
So they put the antiquated, mothballed, failed old nuclear reactor on the auction block.
And sold it to the Bible salesman for $111 million, a fraction of a percent of the money already poured into it.
But Haney wasn't going to flip this thing with his own cash. Never. He sought $5 billion in federal loans from the department of energy, and the whole thing hinged on another $2-plus billion federal tax credits. Everybody's in. Four Alabama congressmen--plus former Gov. Bentley--have gone to bat for Haney. North Alabama politicians are salivating about the potential jobs the plant could bring, and concern about federal debt and spending are as far away as Chernobyl.
And this week the Wall Street Journal reported that Haney agreed to pay Michael Cohen - the president's former attorney -- $10 million to help him secure the federal loans to make it all happen.
We got trouble. Right there in River City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for ...
Wake up Alabama. If Franklin Haney builds this reactor, you'll pay for it.
Maybe it's not a lot of money to Haney, but it's a lot of money to me.
(John Archibald is a columnist for Reckon by AL.com. His column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Write him at email@example.com.)
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THE GREATEST POLITICAL SLOGAN OF ALL TIME – “I can’t be bought … but if you want to work out a short-term rent or long-range lease I am most certainly open for business … ”