Mississippi County officials push ‘Work Here, Live Here’ plan

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,354 views 

There was a time when Mississippi County rivaled Craighead County in terms of population and economic output when it came to the most prosperous counties in Northeast Arkansas.

Eaker Air Force Base, opened during World War II, was home to multiple bomber groups that brought thousands of people to the town and generated thousands of civilian and non-civilian jobs.

When the base closed in 1992, it started a trend of de-population and slowing of economic growth in the county which abuts Interstate 55 and the Mississippi River. Local officials began a push to lure manufacturing jobs to the county and it worked. Nucor and Big River Steel (BRS) built massive plants in the county transforming it into the largest steel producing county in the country.

Steel jobs are high paying but there was only one problem. Each proceeding generation attempted to live near where they worked. This new generation is different, Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson told Talk Business & Politics. Many workers in its high paying steel industry sector commute or live in temporary housing during their work week and return home when they finish, Mississippi County Economic Development President Clif Chitwood said.

Workers in the plants come from as far away as Atlanta, Nashville, Tulsa, Little Rock and other places. Many work four, 12-hour shifts, and then return home to their families for the next four days. They rent apartments with others, lease houses or stay in local trailer and RV parks.

“What we’ve found is that younger people don’t have a problem traveling to work,” Nelson said. “What we’ve had to do is re-focus our efforts.”

BRS, now owned by U.S. Steel, recently announced it will expand and open a $3 billion mill, the largest industrial investment project in Arkansas history. The new mill will be located on land adjacent to the BRS plant and will directly and indirectly employ about 900 workers starting in 2024. The average wage for workers will be about $100,000 annually. Payroll at the new plant will exceed $100 million per year, and property taxes from the plant will provide about $10 million to local coffers, Chitwood said. Construction on the new plant has already begun.

The new plant will provide a golden opportunity to reset population loss in the county, Nelson said.

Mississippi County is set to launch its “Work Here, Live Here” initiative. The program will pay for 10% of any new home bought in the county by any worker in the manufacturing sector. The home has to be in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, Nelson said. To qualify for the program, a worker must obtain a construction loan from a local bank. Once the house is built, a second mortgage with the 10% will be implemented. If the worker remains employed in the county for at least four years, the county will pay off that second mortgage.

The county plans to use funds from its half-cent economic development sales tax to pay for the program. Nelson said he was skeptical about how popular the program would be with workers. After floating the idea in public, several bankers talked with Nelson about interest in the program.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s far more people than I thought,” he said.

Workers living in the county are vital for its survival, Nelson said. Not only does it generate economic growth for local businesses and expand the sales tax base which impacts all residents, it makes their own lives better.

“Traveling to work. … I just can’t see how that’s sustainable for family life,” he added.

Mississippi County has had trouble luring workers to live in the county, but has transformed itself into the dominant manufacturing county in the region. Nucor built the largest steel mill in the Western Hemisphere in the county and then ancillary industries began to populate nearby. Soon economic developers set their sights on another massive steel mill project.

When U.S. Steel was searching nationwide for a site, the county already had a prime site to offer, one that would have been classified as a certified site if the designation was in use back then, Chitwood said. The property, located just outside of Osceola not far from the Mississippi River was under option, meaning it could be bought if the steel mill wanted it.

The county poured $200,000 into the original BRS site conducting soil, water and cultural studies to ensure the property could support a steel plant. The property acquired for the expansion plant is similar in terms of water and soil compositions so it will work to support the new project, he added. Cultural studies have identified a couple of Native American sites on the property that will have to be avoided, but there are no tribal mounds on the land.

The new optimized steel production facility is expected to feature two electric arc furnaces (EAFs) with 3 million tons per year of advanced steel making capability, a modern endless casting and rolling line, and advanced finishing capabilities. Upon completion, the project will apply to become LEED certified, the company said.

State economic developers convinced the legislature to add $50 million to the Quick Action Closing Fund — a fund controlled by the governor — for site infrastructure. That money was moved from a reserve account during the special session.

Lawmakers also had to adapt recycling tax credits for the steel industry during the session. The credits will cost the state an average of $11 million a year for 14 years and $8.8 million a year if the state buys back the tax credits at a 20% discount. The legislation passed creates a new project type for steel manufacturers to qualify for an income tax credit for waste reduction, reuse or recycling equipment.