Two little words

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 528 views 

I’m often accused by my friends of using 10 words when two will do. OK, I’m guilty. So in an effort to mend my loquacious ways, I’ll focus for the purposes of this column on just two words: what if.

Those two words come to mind because of something about which Steve Brawner, a contributor to this publication, wrote recently regarding the state’s biggest-ever economic development project.

State government officials, Mississippi County leaders and executives of U.S. Steel announced in January that Osceola will be the site of a $3 billion mill that’s expected to employ at least 900 people at what are by Arkansas standards very generous wages. The Pittsburgh-based company said construction is expected to begin early this year and be completed in 2024. Arkansas and at least two other states — Mississippi and Alabama — were said to be finalists for the mill.

Arkansas lawmakers in December passed an incentive package aimed at helping lure the steel project to the state, including an income tax credit for recycling equipment for the facility. The legislature, in a brief, to-the-point session also transferred $50 million to the governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund for site infrastructure.

The facility will be located near the existing Big River Steel plant, also owned by U.S. Steel. Another mill owned by Nucor Steel is also located in Mississippi County, considered one of the nation’s top producers of steel. U.S. Steel said the new facility will have two electric arc furnaces with 3 million tons per year of advanced steelmaking capability, a modern endless casting and rolling line, and advanced finishing capabilities.

It will process recycled steel into the kind of advanced steel used by the auto industry, which increases the state’s chance to land a major automobile manufacturing plant, something Arkansas officials have chased for at least 20 years. That quest has so far proved elusive, but it was no accident Gov. Asa Hutchinson in his remarks aimed some words in the automakers’ direction.

“This puts us in a better position to say to the automobile industry, ‘Locate in Arkansas. Put your next manufacturing facility here. Look at the steel that we’re producing, how close you would be to this production of steel in our state,’” Hutchinson said.

The governor said an auto manufacturer would potentially locate anywhere in Arkansas. It would want to have access to markets in Texas and both coasts and would need 1,000 acres or more.

To use two words instead of a dozen, I believe Hutchinson was telling the auto industry, “Y’all come.” Two more words he also might be telling site selectors are, “We’re ready.”

Perhaps we were not quite as prepared in the early 2000s as the governor is telling the auto industry we are now.

In 2004, Arkansas voters passed Amendment 82 to the state constitution. That measure is the state’s super project amendment. With their yes vote, voters authorized the state to issue general obligation bonds for major economic development projects approved by lawmakers.

In 2014, Arkansas landed the first super project under Amendment 82, the Big River Steel plant at Osceola. Hutchinson praised two of his predecessors, Gov. Bill Clinton for landing the Nucor Steel plant and Gov. Mike Beebe for recruiting Big River Steel in 2014. He also complimented Mississippi County leaders and voters for passing a 1% economic development tax after the county lost 9,000 jobs following the closure of Eaker Air Force Base.

It was some 20 years ago that Arkansas officials believed they had secured an auto assembly plant for eastern Arkansas. Hino Motors Manufacturing, the commercial truck division of Toyota Motors Corp., produces Class 6-7 conventional trucks for the U.S. market. In 2004 Hino broke ground at Marion in Crittenden County for a factory to produce axles, knuckles and suspension components for Toyota’s Tacoma, Tundra and Sequoia. That 510,000-square-foot facility opened in 2006.

Adjacent to the Hino site in Marion was another, vacant area of land that officials in Marion and Little Rock believed would be perfect for Toyota’s next project, an auto assembly plant — the Twin Toyota projects, some were thinking. Arkansas was said to be a finalist for that project, and indeed, some leaders believed it was a sure thing — again two little words.

As it turned out, however, much to Arkansas officials’ chagrin, Toyota chose Blue Springs, Miss., population 243, over Marion for the Toyota Corolla assembly plant. In its defense, Blue Springs is near Tupelo, population nearly 40,000.

Some believe former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, who had been elected governor of Mississippi in 2003 and took office in 2004, might have been able to help Mississippi’s cause. Toyota broke ground for the Corolla plant in 2007 and after some delay, opened the facility in 2011 and now provides more than 4,000 direct and indirect jobs. The plant rolls out 170,000 Corollas annually.

Arkansas losing out to Mississippi nearly 20 years ago for the Corolla plant indeed makes a person ponder a couple of what-ifs.

What if we’d had Amendment 82 in place earlier than 2004? What if we’d had a robust steel industry in place earlier than 2004? Would we have beaten Mississippi for the Corolla plant?

Who knows, but certainly there is at least one other two-word phrase we’ve learned over the last two decades: Be prepared.

Another two-word sentence seems to describe us now: We are.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.