A stand of white oak trees, the work ethic of the area’s residents and the care shown by Independence County leaders lured a barrel manufacturer to build a stave-making plant west of Batesville.
The Independent Stave Company will begin production near Locust Grove by the end of 2023. The company, based in Lebanon, Mo., and with locations on six continents, makes oaken barrels for wine and bourbon, and plans to hire 60 people when it opens and an additional 20 later. Positions range from manufacturers to maintenance and administrative jobs.
Independent Stave operates six stave mills and three cooperages in the United States. Established in 1912, the company makes staves, barrels and oak products for businesses in 40 countries around the world.
It will invest $30 million into its Independence County facility.
“We had the natural resources,” said Crystal Johnson, the president of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce and City of Batesville Economic Development. “We have a large supply of white oak. We also have a great workforce ready to work.”
Earlier this year, Independent Stave had narrowed its location for a new mill to Independence County and Tennessee. Company officials visited Batesville and were impressed with the area, Johnson said. The company already was buying white oak from nearby Locust Grove for its other mills.
“I think they were shocked at what a beautiful town Batesville is,” said Jan Smith, president of the White River Planning and Development District. “The people were so receptive to them. I think our people were a big impact.”
In April, Independent Stave announced it had chosen Independence County.
“The new stave mill will be our seventh domestic mill and an important addition, allowing us to expand our supply of high-quality American white oak,” said Brad Boswell, CEO of the company, in a news release.
A spokesman for the company declined any additional interviews until after Independent Stave begins construction on its new facility. Groundbreaking should be held in late June or July.
Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said in the announcement that white oak is one of 160 species of hardwood grown in the state.
“Timber is vital to the Arkansas economy,” he said. “It contributes slightly more than 5 percent of our economy and employs more than 27,700 people. I am confident that Independent Stave Company will find the resources they need in Arkansas to continue on the newest path of their journey.”
Local leaders credit the collaborative effort of city and county officials, economic development commissions and the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville for attracting the stave company.
The county pitched in $200,000 of in-kind money to help prepare the 100 acres for construction along Arkansas 25, about 10 miles west of Batesville. In all, the groups contributed about $1 million in site work, training programs, child care and transportation for training potential employees, fuel cards, rental assistance, salary assistance and other incentives.
“We had the right people in the right place,” Independence County Judge Robert Griffin said.
Griffin and others travelled to Lebanon to see the plant and met with company representatives. They boasted about the economic growth Independence County has experienced despite the financially devastating pandemic over the past two years.
The county has seen Toro Company acquire the privately-owned Intimidator Group in Batesville, a manufacturer of zero-turn Spartan Mowers, for $400 million in January.
The Arkansas Department of Correction has allocated $4.3 million to convert the county’s vacant juvenile detention center into a lower-level parole and probation center.
And more restaurants are moving to Batesville, while other chains are asking about relocation, Smith said.
“We definitely survived the economics of the pandemics,” Smith said. “A lot of restaurants closed, but many began doing deliveries. Our office would order from a different restaurant each week. I think our community all chipped in and helped.
“They [Independent Stave] saw that caring,” she said.
Smith said another selling point of the area was that White River Planning and Development District representatives told the stave officials about available grants they could obtain. Smith said her workers were willing to assist Independent Stave officials, even if they selected a different area to build the facility.
“We were educating them about the availability of grants in other states and with federal grants,” she said. “They thought that was cool. If they chose somewhere else in this region, that would be OK. If anything happens in the South, we’re happy.”
This was the first project Johnson worked on from start to finish as the chamber director, she said. She realized the need for the collaborative effort among the various organizations and the community college to help bring in new industry. She said in years past, the college wasn’t established and the chamber was not as “aggressive.”
She studied maps to determine just how far local workers were commuting and saw Independent Stave Company could draw from all over her county along with residents of Jackson, Sharp and White counties. It’s much like the steel mills in Mississippi County that have seen workers drive from Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. If there are good jobs, people will travel to them, she said.
The stave company thrived in the early 1910s but when prohibition occurred in 1919, it began making non-alcoholic cooperage for fruit and salted meat barrels. Now, more than 100 years later, Independent Stave will make make staves for whiskey barrels in a dry county of Arkansas.
A group tried to place a referendum to allow residents to vote to go “wet” and allow the sale of alcohol in the county in 2016. But a circuit court judge ruled that some signatures gathered to place the initiative on the ballot were not certifiable, and he struck the measure from the ballot.
In addition to the taxes, both property and employee wages, that the new Independent Stave facility will create, the county’s diverse industry will get a new notch in its belt.
Along with the Toro Company and the thriving Southside town atop Ramsey Mountain just south of the White River, the area boasts LaCroix Precision Optics, which makes lenses for telescopes and other optical appliances; Lifeplus, a manufacturer of health, dietary and nutritional supplements; Peco Foods Inc.; Custom Craft Poultry; poultry processing facilities and others.
“We show a diversity of manufacturers,” Smith said. “We have what it takes to bring in anyone. This will help us recruit even more business.
“There’s quite a bit of excitement going on.”