It’s good to be the Port of Little Rock these days. The business park announced April 20 it had reached an agreement with W&W|AFCO Steel, the largest steel fabricator in the country, to locate a production facility there, bringing $18.7 million in investment and creating 115 full-time jobs.
This on the heels of the March 29 announcement that plastics manufacturer Synthesia Technology of Barcelona, Spain, was building a $29 million facility on 15 acres at the port, its first factory in the U.S. Not to mention last fall’s announcement that decking materials manufacturer Trex was investing $400 million for its plant, creating 500 jobs.
Bryan Day, executive director, said the latest announcement was not only a boon for Central Arkansas, but is representative of a hot streak Arkansas has been on in manufacturing circles of late. Since February, major announcements have come from northeast Arkansas, where U.S. Steel will build a $3 billion, 900-job plant, and the April 13 unveiling of the REDI Arkansas Manufacturing Center, a 1,300-acre megasite in Texarkana.
“My philosophy is that a rising tide lifts all ships,” Day said. “Northeast Arkansas is doing well with the steel industry; I believe in the next 20 years that will be the steel capital of the world, I really do. Texarkana and southwest Arkansas, with access to the Texas and western markets, that’s great, too.
“If we’re successful in Texarkana and we’re successful in Jonesboro, we’re going to be successful in Little Rock.”
Day said the port also is benefiting from manufacturers focusing on keeping production facilities and jobs at home. While sourcing things overseas may be cheaper, recent events have shown the flaws in locating production offshore.
“After the pandemic, manufacturers and distributors learned some lessons that we can’t be completely dependent on the global economy for certain things anymore,” he said. “You remember [in 2020] the shelves became empty; computer chips for vehicles, toilet paper, things that we depended on from other countries…we’ve lost the ability to get all that in a timely manner.
“What you’re seeing in this country right now is a huge interest in ‘reshoring,’ bringing manufacturing jobs back to America. And no disrespect to Memphis, Atlanta or St. Louis, but those communities are hard to invest in right now because of traffic and lack of available space. While in mid-sized cities like Little Rock, Jonesboro or Jackson, Tenn., there’s a lot of interest.”
The W&W|AFCO Steel project fills a physical footprint vacated in 2020 by LM Wind Power, a manufacturer of giant windmill blades used in windfarms. The Danish company sunk $150 million into its factory in 2007 but never quite lived up to its billing, promising to create 1,100 jobs while ultimately employing a little more than half that at its peak.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that with this major plat being converted to tenant use, the Port of Little Rock is fresh out of inventory at a moment when its stock has arguably never been higher.
“We are really out of good, large, shovel-ready usable sites,” Day said. “Our biggest challenge is, we’ve got to keep acquiring land. For us to thrive, we have to have more land, something that is not easy to do, and it’s expensive. But it is something we have to do.
“There is other land to buy, and we continue to talk to landowners, but we don’t have a revenue stream for that right now. The city helped us in 2011 with the sales tax that gave us some money. That tax was not renewed, so we don’t have that revenue stream. But we are looking at other ways to buy land. We’re looking at some potential public funding that we would take on. We’re talking about partnerships, and we’re looking at other ways to be innovative.”
One of the most innovative strategies — to say nothing of ambitious — is a current plan to bring 1,000 acres into the port’s holdings by late next year. If successful, the resulting supersite would be unlike anything in the region, offering easy access to four modes of transport, something Day called a game-changer.
“If you look at what happened in Tennessee when they brought the Ford manufacturer in about six months ago, they’ve had like 50 other industries that have followed that are going to be suppliers,” he said. “So, if we have this supersite available in early 2024, and it’s shovel ready for the most part, and it’s served by railroad and river and road and close to the airport, I think that becomes a game-changer for us. We can attract an industry that will not only invest billions of dollars directly and indirectly, but also have other industries follow. That’s where I’m putting a lot of my energy now.”
The Port of Little Rock, organized under the Port of Little Rock Authority in 1959 and opened in 1971, is an important mooring point on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, a 445-mile navigation channel championed in Congress by the late U.S. Sen. John McClellan. Per the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the system begins at the confluence of the White and Mississippi Rivers, joining the Arkansas River at Arkansas Post Canal. It then crosses Arkansas into Oklahoma, where it traverses the state until it reaches the confluence of the Arkansas and Verdigris River, following the latter waterway to a point 51 miles upstream at the Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa.
The Little Rock development’s confluence of large tracts of land within reach of every major form of transport has been a powerful draw for tenant companies, especially recently. Tenants include the likes of Amazon, Waste Management and Delta Plastics, plus international companies such as Indian drilling-pipe manufacturer Wellspun and the North American headquarters of Czech gunmaker CZ-USA.
One of the organization’s underrated strengths is how its central location attracts workers from across Arkansas. About 8,000 people work at the port’s resident companies, many pulled well from outside Pulaski County.
“Workforce is a challenge; Arkansas has very low unemployment, but there are people that want to work,” Day said. “We have been able, for the most part, to help industries attract and retain people. We focus on that every day, but it is not something that we can rest on. We have to always be thinking about it.
“At the local level, I’m working on developing a Little Rock Port Authority workforce program where we have an employee or a partnership with somebody where all they do is focus on helping our 45 industries attract talent through job fairs, going to schools, going to colleges. If Welspun needs 50 welders, for instance, I envision this person or this organization working on that. I hope to have something in place by the end of the year. I think if we can do that, that will be something else that sets us apart.”
Day said while the challenges of recruitment are steep, recent enhancements to skilled-labor education programs have only improved the quality of Arkansas’ labor pool.
“In the 1970s, corporate America said we’re going to ship all of our jobs overseas; we don’t need this anymore. So, schools did away with that industrial training. It was a huge mistake. Probably one of the greatest mistakes our education system ever did,” Day said. “Now, we’ve done a 180. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce works with the four school districts, and they’ve created the Ford NGL program where they’re going into the high schools and teaching young people some basic skills for manufacturing — what I knew as vo-tech in high school in the ‘80s.
“We’re going to start seeing these kids come out of high school in the next year or two, and there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of high school students interested in this in Central Arkansas. We’re going to be putting this newly trained, ready workforce into the manufacturing environment. I think that’s something that Arkansas has going for it that other states don’t have.
“It’s a long-term investment. It’s not going to happen overnight. But I think in five or 10 years, you’re going to see the fruits of these efforts playing out in manufacturing.”