Steel in cotton country

by Clif Chitwood ( 370 views 

In Mississippi County, it has always been about the geography. The land and river determine our economics, our lifestyles and our history.

First there was a great hardwood forest, full with bear, turkeys, quail and bayous teeming with bass, crappie and catfish. Then men came to harvest the timber and the sound of saws rang through the primordial woods. People came to run sawmills, general stores and all the other apparatus of encroaching civilization.

Then men with an eye for the main chance brought in enough dynamite to fight a respectable small war, and for a decade the stumps of the great forest trees were blown into the sky. While the explosions roared, more people arrived. Sharecroppers, mules, financiers and farm equipment came, and for almost 50 years Mississippi County was the largest cotton producing county in the United States.

At the time, 88,000 people lived in the third most populous county in Arkansas. The fabled life of Mr. Faulkner’s Delta rang for decades a song of money, poverty, work, jazz and bourbon.

But every year the farms required fewer people to make a crop. Some people moved north. Winthrop Rockefeller brought more than 600 manufacturing plants to Arkansas in the ’60s, and for 25 years the population in Mississippi County stabilized. Car and tractor dealerships, as well as doctors, dentists, accountants and local merchants were profitable. The middle class was strong, and jobs were plentiful. New homes were being built. The banks were locally owned and lent money.

Then in a rush in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the textile plants closed, reopened and closed again. The assembly plants moved to Mexico, and Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville closed. Mississippi County was suddenly in deep trouble.

It was saved by a new technology in the making of steel and the great river that gives the county its name. Induction furnace steel technology makes the recycling of steel possible.

But for that tech to be profitable, electricity has to be low-cost, and scrap steel must be delivered to the mill cheaply. The river provided economical delivery of scrap and the electric companies provided the power.

Nucor-Yamato Steel Company came to Mississippi County in 1987. As farming was undergoing one of its almost predictable contractions at that time, young farmers and young men who had planned on being farmers found good work and astounding paychecks in the two Nucor mills that opened in the Blytheville area.

From a small plant employing a little more than 100 people at Nucor-Yamato, where metal I-beams are made, the steel industry has grown to be a behemoth of the economy in Mississippi County. When Nucor opened its second mill producing rolled steel, large oil and gas pipe makers such as Tenaris and Ipsco moved in to take advantage of low-cost delivery of their primary raw material.

The advantages Mississippi County offered did not go unnoticed by other steel companies. The combination of low-cost scrap collection, cooperative electric companies, state-of-the-art job training programs and a workforce familiar with large equipment made Mississippi County a competitive player in every major steel mill location search for more than 15 years.

In my capacity as economic developer for Mississippi County, I made numerous trips around the country and to Europe looking for another steel mill to take advantage of Mississippi County’s natural advantages.

In the end, it was John Correnti, the man who built the first Nucor mill in 1987. He put together the partnership that built Big River Steel in 2015 and 2016. The addition of a third mill and a second steel company firmly established Mississippi County as a rising steel center, with many ancillary and support business moving into the area.

Management is moving back into the county. Local business people are starting businesses to serve the steel mills. Some of them get rich, more make a good living.

The steel industry has saved Mississippi County. Our population is smaller but net capital investment dwarfs that of pre-steel days. Property taxes are rising. In a time when every town and county in Arkansas has had to either reinvent itself or wither, we feel most fortunate to have found a niche in the steel markets of the United States and the world.
Editor’s note: Clif Chitwood is president of the Mississippi County Economic Development Area.The opinions expressed are those of the author.