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Jonesboro-based Hytrol plans to invest more than $20 million to open a manufacturing operation in Fort Smith that will employ up to 250 within five years. The new operation will locate in 300,000 square feet of the former Whirlpool building.
The company manufactures conveyer belt systems and other material handling systems for a wide variety of businesses, including those involved in the booming e-commerce sector. Hytrol was founded by Tom Loberg in Wisconsin in 1947, and relocated to Jonesboro in 1962.
Hytrol has more than 700,000 square feet of production space and 48,000 square feet of research-and-development space in two facilities in Jonesboro that employ more than 1,200 people. The company also develops software for conveyors and warehouse management.
Hytrol officials met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson Monday (Jan. 4) at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce to announce the company’s expansion.
“Hytrol has been in Jonesboro, Arkansas since 1962,” Hytrol President David Peacock said in a statement. “We began with 28 employees and have grown to more than 1,200 employees in that location. When it came time to expand with an additional production facility, it was an easy decision to stay in Arkansas. The workforce in Arkansas is second to none; the business climate supports our growth; and our values of faith, family, gratitude, empathy, commitment, and community align perfectly with Arkansas.”
After evaluating multiple locations in Arkansas and surrounding states, Hytrol selected Fort Smith as the site for its new operations, according to a press release. One factor in the search was to geographic diversify its operations. Hytrol signed a long-term lease with the owner of Spartan Logistics, the Toledo, Ohio-based company that now owns the former Whirlpool building located at 6500 Jenny Lind Road. Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp. closed the refrigerator manufacturing plant in June 2012, which at the time employed about 1,000, but was home to more than 4,500 jobs at its peak.
“In the nearly fifty years since Hytrol moved to Jonesboro, the company’s equipment has conveyed millions of boxes and bottles along thousands of miles of the company’s material handling systems all over the nation,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in the statement. “Hytrol’s equipment assists industries from food and beverage to pharmaceutical to package handlers move their products efficiently and safely from the point of production to the customer. Hytrol is a great company for Arkansas, and I am elated they are expanding to Fort Smith.”
Fort Smith Chamber President and CEO Tim Allen said having a good local workforce and the available property helped bring Hytrol to the city.
“Having another legacy Arkansas company choosing to expand here is proof that business understands what we have to offer. When they needed the right facility, the right workforce and the right environment, their first call was to Fort Smith. That endorsement speaks volumes about what we can bring to the table,” Allen said.
The new operation will help boost the Fort Smith metro’s beleaguered manufacturing sector. The sector, once the largest jobs sector in the region, employed 31,200 at its peak in June 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sector had an estimated 16,500 jobs in November, down from 17,600 in November 2019.
Phillip Poston, director of Fort Smith Site Operations and grandson of Hytrol founder Tom Loberg, said along with the $20 million the company would spend on capital equipment for the facility, they would spend an additional $3.5 million to bring the facility up to standards to start production.
“The Governor’s Quick Action Fund is helping to defer a small portion of that cost. It was critical to the success of the program and made a huge difference in the decision to locate the company’s second facility (in Fort Smith),” he said.
Poston said the company also received incentives through the state’s Create Rebate program, which provides qualified businesses a financial incentive equal to 3.9% to 5% of the annual payroll of new full-time permanent employees.
The Fort Smith facility is expected to open and be operational March 1 with the second line expected to begin by summer. The average salary for the 250 jobs will be around $19.75 an hour, with executive positions included in that average. The average starting pay for most workers at the facility will be between $17 to $18 an hour, according to Poston. The 250 jobs will be filled this year, with job fairs planned for late January and at other times during the year, Poston said.
“We need to fill 250 positions very quickly. To do that, we are going to bring people on in the $17-$18 (an hour) range,” Poston said.
One of the draws of Fort Smith for the facility is the new Peak Innovation Center, which will be a collaboration between Fort Smith Public Schools and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Fort Smith Public Schools officially broke ground on the Peak Innovation Center Dec. 7. The center will be a regional career and technology center with a focus on instructional strategies within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines.
Fort Smith voters in May 2018 approved a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate was expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. The millage plan also included the $13.724 million career and technology center, now the Peak Innovation Center, featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. Students attending the center will receive a hands-on approach to career-focused curriculum and programming taught by UAFS faculty as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center.
“We only wish it was coming online this month instead of later in the year,” Poston said of the Peak center. “Its advanced manufacturing track is tailor-made to train and graduate the kind of associates we want to hire.”
Talk Business & Politics Fort Smith metro report Tina Alvey Dale contributed to this report.