Little Rock port has manufacturing prospect with 1,000-job potential

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 749 views 

Local and state economic development officials have met with a manufacturing prospect that could potentially add more than 1,000 jobs to the central Arkansas economy, Talk Business & Politics has learned.

Scattered details of the project were revealed Wednesday (April 19) at the monthly board meeting of the Little Rock Port Authority, where a busy public agenda also noted that Mumbai, India-based Welspun Tubular has jumpstarted pipe production and hiring after President Donald Trump’s recent executive order opening the door for work to resume on the controversial Keystone Pipeline project.

In a report to the board of directors on the authority’s operations, LRPA Executive Director Bryan Day said state Department of Economic Development and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce officials scheduled a recent visit with an out-of-state site consultant to look at the port.

“In working with the AEDC and the chamber, we did show a piece of property the other day to a prospect that would be a major employer to this community,” Day told the LRPA board. “I will tell you that only anecdotally, but we are getting more, and more interest in people coming to the port.”

After the meeting, Day said he didn’t have a lot of information because the site consultant did not offer details about the company making the inquiry about the port.

“What we do know is that it is a manufacturer with 1,000 plus jobs, but I can’t tell if they are from North Little Rock or North Africa – they just don’t tell us,” Day said. “The purpose of this visit was to look at the port and to kind of see what our capacities were, if we could provide a high level of service, do we have available real estate, what was the business climate like and could this principal location meet their needs.”

Day also said the site consultant looked at other sites in Arkansas, as well as other location across the U.S. He said local and state economic development officials expect to hear back from the company with more detail if an Arkansas site is considered. Little Rock Chamber President and CEO Jay Chesshir attended the LRPA, but did not speak publicly about the project. AEDC officials also would not divulge details concerning the site consultant representing the manufacturing client.

Day said LRPA submits up to 40 proposals to large prospects per year, but said the odds of landing such projects is very small.

“Very seldom do they end up coming here,” he said. “For every 100 sites, if you are lucky you’ll get a second or third visit.”

Still, Day said the Little Rock port has seen increased economic activity and greater interest for request for proposals in recent months. The authority recently signed a lease with Chinese sport apparel manufacturer Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Company that will invest more $20 million and bring 400 jobs paying $14 an hour plus benefits to the Little Rock area.

That deal was first announced in October by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state Economic Development Director Mike Preston in signing a memorandum of understanding on the final day of his six-day Chinese trade mission in the fall. Tianyuan is a garment maker specializing in the production of casual and sport apparel, including garments for Adidas, Reebok and Armani. The Chinese manufacturer’s annual production rate is nearly 10 million articles and clothing and supplies 90% of the garments marketed by Adidas, which is the second-largest global sports and apparel maker behind Nike.

“That is a pretty significant investment and the type of announcement we hope we see more of,” he said.

LRPA staff also revealed at the monthly meeting that the port’s largest employer, Welspun Tubular, is hiring new workers and looking to restart production at the Little Rock port. In late January, President Trump signed an executive order approving the restart of the so-called Keystone XL Pipeline, an 1,100-mile crude oil pipeline that connect oil production in Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Over the past 24 months, Welspun has slowed production and laid off hundreds of employees in central Arkansas in response the slowdown in the energy sector and an executive order by former President Barack Obama in November that shut down the Keystone project.

“Welspun was a game-changer for the port when they came to Little Rock in 2008. They really put us on the map,” Day said. “But obviously they are in the energy business, and that sector has been tepid to say the least over the last 12 to 18 months. But they are hiring …, and I’ve been told that they are hiring couple of hundred people and there are some jobs they are starting to fill.”

At its peak, Day said Welspun’s large pipe production operation in Little Rock had over 800 employees. To date, the Indian company’s plant at the Little Rock Port has manufactured 700 miles of the 36-inch-diameter steel pipe needed to complete the Keystone pipeline.

“Welspun, by all accounts, they are picking back up. You know the big one out there has almost 400 miles of the Keystone pipeline sitting in their parking lot,” Day said. “When they get the greenlight, we will be fortunate enough to move that pipeline by railcar.”

In January, Welspun Tubular spokesperson Naveen Soni would not divulge information on whether the company planned to hire additional workers or ramp up production in Little Rock to support the reinvigorated Keystone project. As last count, Welspun employed nearly 600 workers in Arkansas, according to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.