Mississippi County leaders keep focus on steel industry

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 733 views 

The Mississippi County miracle chronicles a three-decade turnaround for the region that was dealt a devastating blow in the early 1990s when Eaker Air Force Base closed. On top of changes in agriculture and a declining population, Mississippi County — once the fifth largest county in the state with more than 60,000 residents — began to reinvent itself.

Today, the county has just under 40,000 residents with about a 5.4% unemployment rate. Led by billions of dollars of investment in the steel industry, Nucor, U.S. Steel, Big River Steel and other brand name companies have opened and expanded operations to make Mississippi County the largest steel producing county in the U.S.

Two leaders who have helped shape and will continue to shape the area’s future — Great River Economic Development Foundation President Clif Chitwood and County Judge John Alan Nelson — sat down with Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock to discuss what’s on the horizon.

Roby Brock: Let’s talk about this miracle happening in Mississippi County. There was a big announcement recently of a $120 million investment from Zekelman Industries. Cliff, what are the details of what they announced?

Clif Chitwood: They’re announcing a new plant which will make structural steel pipe for bridges, that type of thing. And they’re making a new galvanized pipe in larger sizes than are at present available in North America, but are needed. So we won’t have to import those anymore.

Brock: What’s been happening in the region with all of the investment in the steel industry?

Judge John Alan Nelson: It has just exploded recently. Clif has been in the trenches since the very beginning, and I was on the legislative body at the time. But you’re right, in the last six, seven years, it has just seemed to have really begun coming together.

Brock: Clif, what went into the thinking of how you guys planned to make this happen?

Chitwood: In the nineties, Mississippi County lost 9,000 jobs. We lost the textile plant. We lost the Borg Warner plant, the Milwaukee tool plant, the shoe factory, the cabinet factory, and the Air Force base. That all added up to 18,000 people, at which point we were in near despair. I was working as the redevelopment officer at the former Blytheville Air Force base. The leaders at the time decided instead of Osceola and Blytheville fighting each other, perhaps it was time to lay down the cudgels and get on the same team. We asked the people to pass a one-half cent sales tax, the proceeds of which would be used to bring industry and jobs to Mississippi County. To date, we have invested local funds, approximately $78 million towards that effort.

Brock: Plus, you’ve had billions of dollars invested from the private sector.

Chitwood: $8 billion from the private sector. And of course, the state of Arkansas has been a great partner on all of our projects.

Brock: How did you guys come to hone in on the steel industry? I know Nucor had a presence there that went back to the Clinton administration, but the other capitalization on that particular industry had to take some special focus.

Chitwood: The first thing we started doing was trying to bring in more downstream customers for Nucor and Zekelman, which was actually one of our first successes there. They came in 2010 with their first plant, then Tenaris, which makes oil and gas pipes, was another success story. Then our group decided that we have more than one stretch of Mississippi River in the county and there were three or four sites in the Osceola area that were still open. So we began to actively market those. The county spent a half a million dollars getting the original Big River Steel site certified. And we just went on the road. We started going to steel shows in the United States and Europe showing them what we had to offer.

Brock: Judge Nelson, a lot of people don’t want to raise taxes. When you’re talking about the job losses that Clif mentioned and the economic decline that came from that, it had to be a hard, hard sell to get people to say, ‘let’s raise our taxes.’ Tell me how that happened.

Nelson: Well, this is the third vote we’ve had on it. We get behind it and the campaign and let the local people know exactly what their tax do dollars are going for and what it’s done for the county, which it’s been a tremendous boost. In sales tax revenue, we’re the seventh largest in the state right now as far as jobs and construction jobs and regular salary jobs. It has just continued to explode.

Brock: Tell me what you guys are planning for next, because with this success in the steel industry, you got quality of life issues, you got housing issues. You’ve got other types of infrastructure.

Nelson: We’re going to continue to support that steel industry and help those downstream customers come in. We’re continuing to market the Mississippi River, which is one of our biggest assets. But one of the diamonds in the rough that most people don’t see is the former Eaker Air Force base. We’ve got a runway that’s two miles long and 300 feet wide. It’s a very rare facility out there and we have not marketed it enough, but we are doing that now through Congressman Rick Crawford and Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton. They got us $2 million that is coming through the HUD [Housing and Urban Development] bill. We’re going to take down half of the old Capehart housing unit on the Air Force base and we’re going to put it back in its original design and then we’re going to put houses for our workforce there.

Brock: You’ve got the Cold War Center going into that place too. Clif, tell me how the transformation of the aeroplex is going to help you guys market for additional economic projects.

Chitwood: Aerospace is a huge industry and we have an ideal place to locate aerospace businesses, either military or munitions or private sector. We have a large private sector company there now — Aviation Repair Technologies. They employ about 200 people, but we’ve got room for a lot more. And we’re preparing certified sites on the air base as well as right on the flight line.

Editor’s note: You can watch their full interview in the video below.