Bekaert plans $16 million expansion, 40 new jobs at its Van Buren operation

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,450 views 

A $16 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion is planned for Bekaert’s wire product plant in Van Buren. The Van Buren City Council held a special meeting Monday night (April 30) during which it unanimously approved industrial revenue bonds for the project.

Bekaert employs around 380 at the Van Buren operation, and the expansion is estimated by the company to add 40 jobs paying an average of $20 per hour. Of the $16 million, $6 million is for construction and $10 million for new equipment. The Belgium-based company primarily makes in Van Buren fence products and high-strength wires used for highway safety. The plant was built in 1976.

Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman told Talk Business & Politics his office has worked with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and state officials since November on an incentive package. Freeman said plant expansions are important because the added investment indicates a company is pleased with where a facility, and its jobs, are located.

“When we talk about retention being important, that’s what this is about,” Freeman said.

The last known expansion in Van Buren was in 2013 and added 45 jobs.

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith chamber, said he and Mayor Freeman worked with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission “to make sure this expansion happened in Van Buren.” Allen also was uncertain of how many jobs would be created, but, like Freeman, said the investment is important for the region.

“When I’m selling this market, I’m not just selling Fort Smith. … Consultants are looking at the entire market, so that’s what I sell. We put these artificial lines on ourselves, with county lines and football teams. But the rest of the world, and the (site location) consultants, they don’t see us that way,” Allen said.

Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution, which operates the port of Fort Smith and a port in Van Buren, said Bekaert’s plants in Van Buren and Rogers benefit from reduced transportation costs because the steel is shipped up the river. From the port in Van Buren, the steel is loaded on trucks or rail for the plants. The Bekaert plant in Rogers has made steel cords for the tire industry since 1989. That plant underwent a $32 million expansion in 2016 which added 100 jobs to an existing workforce of 300.

“They don’t have all those modes at the other (Bekaert) plants in the country. I believe the plants here (in Arkansas) are more competitive because of that,” Shell said, adding most of the raw product Bekaert uses in Van Buren and Rogers comes through the port of Van Buren.

He said plant expansions in Van Buren and Rogers create jobs beyond the plants, but said the Van Buren expansion has been uncertain because of possible tariffs on imported steel. Shell said steel used in Van Buren is different than in Rogers, but the tariffs have already caused a rise in overall steel prices.

“I know that it (Van Buren expansion) will mean more tons and more jobs and more truck drivers for the area,” Shell told Talk Business & Politics. “It’s a very good thing, but I don’t know if the tariffs are going to slow down their plans.”

The administration of President Donald Trump proposed selective tariffs on steel and aluminum in early 2017 under what are known as Section 232 protections. Several companies and trade groups, including Bekaert, are seeking tariff exemptions. Part of their argument is that steel used in their U.S. plants does not have a domestic producer.

“Our mobile society depends on tires, and our tires depend on specialized steel. Domestic steel producers simply do not have the ability to produce the type of steel wire rod needed to support the $27 billion U.S. tire manufacturing industry, which is why virtually all of such steel wire rod is sourced from foreign suppliers,” Anne Forristall Luke, president and CEO of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, said in a March 7 statement. “To levy a 25 percent tariff on steel imports would cause incredible harm to the growing U.S. tire manufacturing industry and the jobs of hundreds of thousands of hard working Americans who work every day to keep the American economy and military on the road.”

Bekaert employs around 30,000 people worldwide.

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