Like the fabled mythological phoenix, Mississippi County has for decades consistently risen from the ashes of economic despair.
Now, with the announcement of a new $3 billion U.S. Steel plant in Osceola, local officials say this could be one of the best opportunities the northeast Arkansas county has ever seen.
“We are sitting on the edge of being able to jump into the most successful era of our history,” said Mississippi County Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director Liz Smith. “We’ve had crests over our years, but we’re at one of the biggest ones now.”
When at full capacity, the plant will hire 900 people with annual salaries of $100,000 to $120,000. The facility is expected to produce 3 million tons of steel with two electric arc furnaces, making Mississippi County the largest steel producing county in the United States. It is expected to be the most advanced steel mill in North America when it opens in 2024.
“This is the big one,” said Clif Chitwood, director of the Great River Economic Development Foundation. “This will be Mississippi County’s best shot to rebuild our demographic infrastructure.”
Randy Scott, the president and chief executive officer of Farmers Bank and Trust in Blytheville, said he’s already received 10 loan applications for new residential construction in the area since the mill’s announcement in January.
But prospects have not always been this lucrative; over the course of the county’s history, hard times always seemed to follow good times.
Blytheville and Osceola began and grew as timber towns in the mid-1800s. The hardwood forests provided plenty of work for those moving to the northeast corner of Arkansas. When fire destroyed much of Chicago in 1871, though, lumber was taken from Mississippi County to help the city rebuild.
The county was soon without the trees that bolstered the economy. Instead of collapsing, however, locals saw an opportunity created by the clearing of trees: cotton. The fertile Delta soil was perfect for growing crops and once again, the area thrived. When machines like the cotton picker were developed, farm laborers once again were left without jobs and forced to move away.
In 1942, the U.S. Air Force built Blytheville Air Force Base on the northeastern edge of town. (It was later named Eaker Air Force Base in honor of World War II general Ira C. Eaker.)
But the base closed in December 1992, and 7,500 soldiers were ordered to leave. Mississippi County lost an additional 9,000 jobs from the 1990s to 2003, Chitwood said, as factories began closing. Nucor Steel opened its plant along the Mississippi River in 1988, but the loss of so many jobs took its toll. The county had an 11.1 percent unemployment rate in 1998, far above the state’s 4.4-percent average.
Fruit of the Loom and Milwaukee Tools closed manufacturing plants in the county in the 2000s. An auto parts manufacturer closed, losing almost 900 jobs, and a shoe factory closed its doors.
“Our big industrial park looked like a science-fiction movie,” Chitwood said after businesses moved out. “It was abandoned.”
He said the county lost almost 17,000 families in roughly 10 years. “It was catastrophic. I think by 2003, people had seen the devastation. But since then, we’ve been fighting back.
Chitwood was hired as the economic director in 2001 and charged with rebuilding Mississippi County’s industrial opportunities. Two years later, more than 60 percent of voters approved a half-cent sales tax earmarked for recruiting industry.
Voters approved continuing the tax in 2011 and then again last July. Chitwood said the commission has helped recruit more than 4,500 jobs and brought in more than $130 million in annual income since the first initiative was passed.
Luring U.S. Steel wasn’t an overnight project, he added. By bringing in more jobs over the past 20 years, the commission was able to build the county’s population. Programs at Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville tailored student coursework to help area businesses who needed specific workers.
The commission also created the “Work Here, Live Here” program as an incentive to bring more people. Under the program, area banks give 10 percent loans to new home builders. The loans are forgivable after a period of time, Scott said.
“We’ve put $3 million of the [industrial recruitment] tax into the program,” he said. “That 10 percent is worth $30 million in homes that will generate sales and real estate taxes for the rest of the homes’ lives.”
He said the construction will also give jobs to welders, framers, contractors and other builders.
“This will definitely create a boon for our area,” he said.
The planned U.S. Steel mill didn’t come about by luck, Scott said.
“We’ve been working since 2003 with the tax. There have been methodical steps that we’ve taken. We had to pass the tax three times. The voters are going to see it really work now.”
County officials also had to battle an old animosity between Osceola and Blytheville, both of which serve as county seats. Mississippi County is one of 10 Arkansas counties to have two county seats.
“There was such a rivalry for 50 years between the two,” Chitwood said. “People in Osceola would rather a business move to Timbuktu than to Blytheville back then.”
The county has a history of coming together, though, luring Nucor-Yamato Steel Co. to Blytheville in 1985. The company opened a state-of-the art cold mill in Hickman. And Big River Steel opened its own mill near Osceola in 2014.
U.S. Steel looked at 40 sites in 14 states before selecting Mississippi County. It was a combination of the Mississippi River on the eastern border of the county and Interstate 55, which courses through the county, that helped attract the steel business, Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said. But the county’s workforce was also a draw, he added.
“There’s a strong work ethic there,” he said. “The future looks bright.”
Scott and Gov. Asa Hutchinson learned of U.S. Steel’s decision to move to Mississippi County while on a Zoom meeting with steel officials who were in Pittsburgh. He and the governor had to act “dignified” upon the announcement because they were on camera, Preston said. Behind the computer and off camera, several cheered and danced.
“This was the biggest private capital investment in the state’s history,” Preston said. “Everyone else was jumping up and down. We were trying not to scream.”
Back at the county’s regional chamber, Smith said Blytheville will begin clearing out vacant, dilapidated houses in its “Rebuild, Restore, Renew” program.
“There wasn’t affordable housing,” she said. “Industries see that as a disadvantage. We have people working here who drive in from Tennessee and the Missouri bootheel to work. We need to create stable neighborhoods for people who want to work and live here.”
Smith also credited the collaboration between workers, the college and industry for improving the county.
“It is very interesting the way people step up here,” she said. “If we could bottle the magic of the people in Mississippi County and market it, we’d do well.”
Officials already held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new U.S. Steel plant. Construction should begin soon.
“I think this will be the one we can look back on and say we finally turned the corner,” Chitwood said.