Big River Steel project already boosting economic activity with more jobs, spending

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 544 views 

Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore said Monday (April 18) that there was a constant battle over the past 15 or so years to bring a major industry to Osceola. Once the announcement that a $1.3 billion steel mill would be built near Osceola and mill construction began, even more work began, he said.

“It has been a godsend,” Kennemore said of the Big River Steel project.

Company officials announced in March that the first phase of the mill had been finished, as the batch anneal furnaces and skin pass mill was done. Once the mill is completed later this year, it is expected to create about 525 jobs and produce about 1.6 million tons of steel each year.

Kennemore said construction of the mill has brought other companies to Osceola. In February, officials with Arkansas Steel Processing announced plans to build a facility in Osceola and to hire 50 people. The company will use a sheet metal slitter to cut steel into 12-inch pieces to send to pipe companies, officials said.

Kennemore said the city’s one-cent sales tax has also seen increases in the past three years. The tax, which was approved by voters in 2013, brought in $750,000 that year and $950,000 in 2014. The number jumped up to $1.3 million in 2015.

Also, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported drops in the unemployment rate in Mississippi County and several other surrounding counties from February 2015 to February 2016. Mississippi County saw its numbers drop from 10.2% to 7.7%, while neighboring Poinsett County dropped from 6.9% to 5.1%. The numbers dropped in Crittenden County from 7.7% to 5.3% and dropped in Craighead County from 5.4% to 3.9%.

A company official said Monday (April 18) that construction on the project remains on schedule to be finished later this year. Lenore Trammell, who serves as chief compliance officer at Big River Steel, said about 1,500 construction workers are already on-site helping to build the mill. The company plans to hire 425 people with about 100 more jobs for companies “who are supporting our efforts,” Trammell told Talk Business and Politics.

“Our early hiring has gone extremely well. We are thrilled with the team we are building. We are accepting applications for general production and maintenance positions as well as for other opportunities ranging from electrical technicians to a warehouse supervisor to a financial analyst,” Trammell said.

The company has also received thousands of applications, Trammell said, noting about 600 people recently attended job fairs the company and Arkansas Northeastern College hosted.

As for growth, Trammell said the company now has contracts with 112 Arkansas-based companies and is on its way to spending more than $250 million with companies in the state.

“We know that is having a positive impact on the local and state economy,” Trammell said.

Trammell also said the company has seen some interest from future customers around the nation.

“Our impact is certainly being felt across the region and the country. As for the nation, we are having exciting conversations with clients across the country,” Trammell said. “They are reacting very positively to having another domestic steel supplier of niche steel products.”

Kennemore, who owns a rental business, said 2015 was a good year for rental property in the county. The town had a 60% to 70% rental occupancy rate in 2013, with a surplus of homes that were available.

“Now it is a 100% occupancy rate with a waiting list,” Kennemore said.

The sight of Big River Steel has also drawn interest in the area, Kennemore said. While not naming anyone, Kennemore said companies have been interested in the fact that the Mississippi River, Interstate 55, a major railroad line (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), a natural gas line and a 500 kV electric line are located near one another. The turning point, Kennemore said, was putting all of those features together into a 5,000-acre site that drew support.

“We had four big looks at that site,” Kennemore said. “We worked for 15 years and it is finally come to fruition.”