Mississippi County home to hot steel and a cold war
For more than three generations, agriculture reigned as the supreme economic driver in Mississippi County. Soybeans, corn and most importantly, cotton were grown in the county’s fertile soil. The county was reportedly the world leader in rain-grown cotton for a time.
Soon after World War II things began to change. Technological improvements led to a severe population and economic decline in the county. Mechanization began to drive workers from the fields and eventually compelled many to leave. It’s estimated that about 12,000 residents left the county between 1950 and 1960. Some of the population loss was abated due to Eaker Air Force Base. When the base closed in 1992, the county’s population started to dwindle once more.
Then, some of the fields that use to produce cotton started to produce steel.
Big River Steel (BRS), Nucor-Yamato, and Nucor Steel Arkansas are the three steel-producing companies that located in Mississippi County during the past 25 years. 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, BRS Chief Commercial Officer Dan Brown recently told members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock. When U.S. Steel was looking to expand in 2019, 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.
Primetals Regional director Michael Jacques was living in Mississippi County during the 1980s when things began to change, he said. Mechanization reduced the farming labor force and then the Eaker shutdown. 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 displaced farm workers could transition into the steel mill.
Great River Economic Development Foundation president Clif Chitwood said the steel 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.
Eaker may have closed, but local officials are hopeful that a museum – The National Cold War Center – will be built and could draw up to 50,000 tourists to the county each year. The Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the airport have teamed to build the center. It will focus on the base’s still-intact “alert” compound, a facility that housed U.S. Air Force B-52 crews during wartime efforts of the 1950s through the 1990s.
The museum could cost up to $20 million to build, and officials had hoped to have it open by 2023, but that timeline was before the COVID-19 pandemic. R. Byron Carlock Jr., a Blytheville native, is spearheading fund development.
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. Workers in the plants come from as far away as Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Tulsa, Okla.; 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 the local trailer and RV parks.
County and company officials want more of the workforce to reside permanently in the county. A program is being developed where the county and company will pay 10% of the down payment on a house for workers. 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 1980s, 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, said President and CEO Patrick Schueck.
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 Northeast Arkansas 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. Seven other sites were under consideration, Brown said. The working relationship with the community was a deciding factor, he added.
“We have some great partners we deal with every day in Northeast Arkansas,” he said.
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.
“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.”