Mars Petcare is again expanding its Fort Smith operation with a $117 million investment over two phases that are estimated to add 140 jobs. The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Sept. 21) approved an Industrial Revenue Bond (IRB) request for the project.
Titled “Project Blue Moon” for purposes of the Fort Smith Board discussion, the second and third phases build upon a $145 million expansion and 120 new jobs announced in January. The IRB program allows the company to pay taxes in lieu of 50% of property taxes for 15 years.
“In addition to the $145 million contemplated for Phase I, the company will invest an additional $117 million in Phases II & III in additional manufacturing equipment. This investment will facilitate 142 additional new jobs to the region. The City has offered industrial revenue development bonds with a 15-year, 50% payment in lieu of taxes,” noted a city of Fort Smith memo about the project.
Although City Administrator Carl Geffken and Mayor George McGill would not mention the name of the company, the reference to the previous 120 jobs and $145 million announcement made it clear that Mars Petcare was the focus of the IRB resolution. Geffken refused to mention the name of the company to a person who had a question about the bond program, which is public because it involves property taxes.
“And that will not be provided at this time,” Geffken said when asked by the questioner about who was receiving the bond.
The company in late 2020 employed 300 in Fort Smith, with the January announcement increase pushing future employment to more than 420 if all the promised jobs materialize. The next two phases should push employment to 560. The company employed 252 in December 2016 when it said the expansion would add 130 jobs, but existing employment indicates just under 50 jobs were added. Incentives offered by the state on the January announcement have clawback provisions in place which will be used if the 120 jobs are not created within three years.
A Mars Petcare press release said the company has invested almost $540 million in its Fort Smith operation, including the $117 million announced Tuesday. The privately-held company said continuing demand for pet food is driving the expansion. According to Mars, 23 million U.S. households have welcomed new pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wet pet food sales are up 18% compared to last year, according to Mars.
“Pet parents are at the center of everything we do, and at Mars Petcare, we’re committed to answering their evolving needs as a trusted partner for pet parents,” Ikdeep Singh, regional president of Mars Pet Nutrition North America, noted in a statement. “The role of pets in our lives has grown even stronger during the pandemic, and our latest investment in Fort Smith enables us to deepen our commitment to our Associates and the City of Fort Smith while also living our purpose: A Better World For Pets.”
Job growth in the Fort Smith metro manufacturing sector is welcome news. The sector employed an estimated 16,800 in August, up from 16,500 in August 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment is well below peak sector employment of 31,200 in June 1999. Average annual employment peaked at 30,600 in 1999, fell to 20,800 in 2010 and was 16,800 in 2020.
MARS HISTORY IN FORT SMITH
Officials with Mars Petcare – based in Brussels, Belgium, with a U.S. headquarters south of Nashville, Tenn. – announced in November 2007 they would build the Fort Smith pet food production and packaging plant, and the $80 million facility opened in September 2009. The average annual salary at the plant was then estimated at $35,300.
In October 2013, the company announced a $50 million expansion that was expected to add 42 jobs. That was followed in early 2015 with an $81.7 million expansion estimated to add 95 jobs paying more than $21 an hour. The company announced in December 2016 a $72 million expansion estimated to create 130 jobs.
The Fort Smith plant is considered by Mars as a “fundamental manufacturing hub” and produces “tray format foods” for CESAR, SHEBA, NUTRO, IAMS and other pet food brands. Also, according to Mars, the Fort Smith plant is one of 14 U.S. Mars Petcare sites, was named Arkansas’ first sustainable manufacturing facility and the first sustainable pet food manufacturing facility in the world.