U.S. Steel has existed for more than 120 years, and one reason is that the company has embraced technological advancement, Dan Brown, Senior Vice President of Advanced Technology Steelmaking and Chief Operating Officer of Big River Steel, told members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock on Tuesday (Feb. 14). When it was looking to expand, BRS was an enticing prospect, he said.
The mill, built in 2014, was the most advanced mill in the country and it produced more steel per worked hour than any other mill in the country, he said. In 2019, U.S. Steel began the process of acquiring the steel mill for about $1.4 billion.
“I was blown away by Big River [Steel] … It was the most advanced mill in the country. The workforce was excellent,” he said.
BRS, Nucor-Yamato, and Nucor Steel Arkansas are the three steel producing companies located in Mississippi County. The county is reportedly the largest steel producing county in the U.S. with 3,000 workers directly tied to steel production and thousands more in secondary industries linked to steel production.
Primetals Regional director Michael Jacques was living in Mississippi County during the 1980’s when things began to change mightily, he said. Mechanization reduced the farming labor force and then the Eaker Air Force base shut down in 1992. The net result was a loss of 8,000 people and more than 9,000 jobs.
The only bright spot was that Nucor decided to build a plant there, he said. Three factors decided the issue. The county had access to multiple forms of transportation – river, rail and highway. It had access to power and those displaced farm workers could transition into the steel mill.
Great River Economic Development Foundation president Clif Chitwood said the jobs created are among the highest paying in the state. Workers in the mills can make anywhere from $125,000 to $165,000 per year and some make more than that, he said.
“The people get the most out of their work,” he said.
Problems remain, however.
The county continues to bleed population and many of the workers live outside the county which means those salaries are spent elsewhere. To encourage workers to become Mississippi County residents, the civic leaders have started a program to encourage house buying in the community. The “Live Here, Work Here” program has built 25 houses in the county during the last eight months.
“That might not sound like a lot, but that’s more than have been built and sold in the county in the last 15 years,” Chitwood said.
When the steel mills were being built in the county, one business that benefited was Lexicon Inc. In the late 1980’s, the Arkansas-based construction company was on the verge of bankruptcy. When it was selected to build the Nucor Steel Arkansas plant, it saved the company, President and CEO Patrick Schueck said.
Lexicon now builds steel plants all over the country and employs more than 2,000 workers, and hundreds of them are employed in the Natural State. The community in NEA makes it a unique steel producing region in the country, Schueck said.
“I think it’s important to point out that we build steel mills around the country… the people in Northeast Arkansas are 1,000% supportive of economic development in their counties. U.S. Steel desires to be in NEA,” he said.
Complimentary businesses have sprung up near the mills, and Schueck said he expects that to continue.
“When you make steel the companies that need steel want to be close to reduce transportation costs,” he said. “It’s a natural flow to be near the steel mills.”
U.S. Steel’s investment in Northeast Arkansas didn’t end with the acquisition of BRS. Last year, the company announced it was building a $3 billion mill adjacent to BRS that is slated to start operations in the summer of 2024.
“This $3 billion investment is the largest for U.S. Steel ever,” Brown said. “It’s the largest investment in the history of Arkansas. Mississippi County will be the largest steel producing county in the country. It blows me away.”