A U.S. pet industry that has grown an estimated 22% in the past four years may have helped Mars Petcare officials decide on a $50 million expansion of their Fort Smith manufacturing operation that will add 42 jobs.

Officials with Mars Petcare – based in Brussels, Belgium, with a U.S. headquarters located south of Nashville, Tenn. – announced Wednesday (Oct. 23) that they planned to add new equipment and a new line to the Fort Smith operation they opened in September 2009.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce this large investment in our Fort Smith plant, bringing even more opportunity and jobs in manufacturing to Arkansas and the Fort Smith area,” said Chris Haas, plant manager at Mars Petcare US in Fort Smith. “In just four short years, our associates have demonstrated success at this facility and built lasting partnerships within the City of Fort Smith, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the State of Arkansas. We’re thankful for their continued confidence in our products and people.”

Work has already begun and the line is expected to go live in late 2014.

Mars Petcare announced November 2007 it would build an $80 million pet food plant at Chaffee Crossing and employ 200 full-time workers when the plant was fully operational. At the time of the announcement, the city of Fort Smith estimated the plant would result in an annual payroll of $7.07 million, with the average annual salary around $35,300.

According to the American Pet Products Association, total estimated U.S. pet industry expenditures will reach $55.53 billion, up from $53.33 billion in 2012 and up more than 22% from the $45.5 billion in 2009 when Mars opened the Fort Smith facility.

Of the estimated $55.53 billion to be spent in 2013, $21.26 billion is expected to be spent on pet food, up from the $20.64 billion in 2102.

The APPA 2013-2014 pet owners survey found that average annual expenses for dog food is $239, and $203 for cats.

MARS HISTORY IN FORT SMITH
State and local officials stepped up financially to convince Mars to build in Fort Smith. The company received $2.2 million from Gov. Mike Beebe’s quick-action closing fund, and other state incentives that totaled more than $19 million — with many of the incentives rewarded only when Mars begins hiring. The city of Fort Smith agreed to significant drainage upgrades near the plant site that, according to estimates in late 2007, could cost up to $1 million.

The plant now employs about 125, according to the Mars announcement issued Wednesday. The facility manufactures CESAR Canine Cuisine and wet pet food for private label brands.

“It’s only been four years since Mars Petcare opened this facility in Fort Smith, and it’s already announcing plans to expand,” noted a statement from Gov. Beebe. “I spoke then about the strength of Fort Smith’s manufacturing tradition, and this announcement emphasizes that strength and endurance.”

Mars Petcare US has more than 2,100 employees in 13 manufacturing plants. The parent company, Mars Inc., is based in McLean, Va., is privately held and has annual net sales of more than $33 billion. The parent company six business segments including Petcare, Chocolate, Wrigley, Food, Drinks, Symbioscience, and more than 72,000 employees worldwide.

CHAFFEE EXPANSIONS
The Mars expansion builds upon expansions at facilities located in the same area of Chaffee Crossing.

Umarex and Walther Arms, Inc., the maker of the world famous Walther PPK handgun used by James Bond, announced in November 2012 they would co-locate at 7700 Chad Colley Blvd. in the city’s Chaffee Crossing development. Combined, the companies plan to invest more than $7 million toward expansion and operations, Blalock added, with the estimated “70 to 120 new jobs” adding to an existing staff of 71 employees in the next five years.

Graphic Packaging, which opened its 300,000-square-foot facility at the Chaffee Crossing intersection of Roberts Boulevard and the future Interstate 49 in 2005, was permitted in July 2013 for a $3.4 million facility expansion.

Patrick Combs, director of operations at Graphic Packaging, said in a September interview with The City Wire it was too early to tell how the expansion would impact labor numbers at the site. However, he did say the number of employees at the facility “will go up. We’re putting together the numbers right now.”

The Mars jobs are welcome news for a Fort Smith metro manufacturing sector that has seen better days. The Fort Smith area manufacturing sector employed an estimated 18,600 in August, unchanged compared to July, and below the 19,430 during August 2012. Employment in the sector is down almost 35% from a decade ago when August 2003 manufacturing employment in the metro area stood at 28,600. Also, the annual average monthly employment in manufacturing has fallen from 28,900 in 2005 to 19,200 in 2012 – the first year the average has dropped below 20,000 since surpassing that level.

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