Kentucky buzzing over whom to blame for Hyundai loss

Posted 7:45AM on Wednesday 3rd April 2002 ( 21 years ago )
GLENDALE, Ky. - As Kentuckians debated whom to blame for the lost Hyundai plant, Norma Howlett listened to the radio inside her family's brick, ranch-style home outside Glendale.

She listened without comment to "The Jane Norris Show" on WHAS-AM radio, as callers took turns rebuking Gov. Paul Patton for his remarks about the Howletts or bemoaning the loss of a major corporation and 2,000 jobs.

The Howletts are the farm family that Patton blames for helping drive away the $1 billion Hyundai plant. Hyundai announced Monday night it would build its plant in Montgomery, Ala.

In Glendale, residents took turns applauding and berating the Howletts, who own 111 acres that officials wanted to acquire as part of the proposed plant site.

"I'm not happy," Ashwani Anand said as he stood at the front desk of his Glendale Economy Inn. Hyundai's decision to build in Alabama will cost him potential business, and he holds the Howletts "100 percent responsible."

But to Perry Hagan, a longtime friend of the Howletts, Patton's words were unwarranted.

"He's not only smeared them, he's put them at odds with the community, put them at odds with their neighbors," Hagan said.

And it's undeserved, said Howlett family attorney Hank Graddy.

"The Howletts' goal was to farm and be left alone," Graddy said Tuesday. "If Hyundai went to another location, that was fine with them. If Hyundai came to Glendale, they would have tried to fit in with Hyundai."

Howlett's brother and sister-in-law, who own the True Kentucky craft store on Main Street in Glendale, also declined the chance to respond to Patton's words. The Howletts have decided that for now it's wiser to let their lawyer speak for them.

Graddy called on Patton to apologize for his words and said he will put his request in writing to Patton's lawyer.

"The Howletts do not deserve the criticism the governor delivered to them," Graddy said Tuesday. "I want to believe that his emotions may have gotten the better of him."

But Patton isn't backing down from his criticism of the Howletts, who he said "asked for an exorbitant price" of $10 million for their 111-acre farm and distorted the opposition to the plant.

"The family made a concerted effort to portray that there was strong opposition to this facility in the community," Patton said Tuesday. "And that did, in my judgment, have an adverse effect on our overall progress. I'm not saying it was the only reason, but I think it was a major problem."

A family member in Lexington accused Patton of using the Howletts as a "scapegoat" for the state's fizzled hopes of getting the plant. She said the comments could turn the county against Norma Howlett.

"I was astounded that he would place the whole blame on this family," said Carol Howlett, a cousin of the Hardin County Howletts. "If one little farm family could make or break a deal this big, I don't think that speaks very well of our leaders."

The Howletts didn't want to sell their land, then asked for $10 million, nearly $9 million more than a court-commissioned appraisal determined it was worth. The Hardin County Fiscal Court, in turn, began condemnation proceedings.

It wasn't until Monday afternoon, just hours before Hyundai's announcement, that the state and the Howletts agreed on an option for the state to acquire the property for $6 million, far more than Patton wanted to pay.

But it was too late, Patton said. He chided the Howletts Monday night, saying they "killed the goose before it had the time to lay the golden egg." And he accused the Howletts of sending damaging information about Kentucky to Alabama officials and to Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo.

Graddy disputed Patton's accusations.

"I don't think the Howletts acted that way, and I don't think that's a fair charge," he said.

Patton still wants the state to purchase the 1,500 acres surrounding the Howletts' property, saying it would be a valuable economic-development site.

But he said he won't buy the Howletts' land -- not at the price they're asking. Hardin County Judge-Executive Glen Dalton said he will recommend the county drop its condemnation lawsuit.

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