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Lots of activity at LR Port now: with infrastructure in place, industry is coming again.

Bob Brave, the Little Rock Port Authority's executive director sees the port complex as having everything going for it:

* Water -- The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, one of the federal government's last massive capital improvement programs before the pork ran out, is 445 miles long with 17 locks and dams.

* Rail -- The Port Authority has its own railroad line connecting the port and adjacent industrial sites to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Cotton Belt-Southern Pacific Railroad.

* Air -- Little Rock's growing regional airport is just minutes away.

* Ground -- The complex is adjacent to Interstate 440, which connects to Interstate 40 and Interstate 30. That means truckers have easy access to Memphis and points east on I-40, Oklahoma City and points west on I-40 and Dallas and points west on I-30.

Brave, a Chicago native and Northwestern University engineering graduate, has headed the Port Authority since 1977. He understands that his role is to attract investments and create jobs. Yet he also maintains that from its creation in 1959 until the completion of the slack-water harbor in 1987, the Port Authority was more concerned with building than marketing.

"We had to get the infrastructure in place," Brave says. "It has taken years for us to evolve to this level, but the slack-water harbor was the last major element. We have the roads. We have water and sewer lines. We have proper drainage."

The complex now needs tenants and the jobs those tenants will bring. There currently are about 1,100 people employed in the 1,500-acre port industrial complex.

Under Amendment 49 to the state Constitution, local governments are authorized, with voter approval, to issue bonds for industrial development and levy up to five mills in property taxes to pay off the bonds.

In 1979, the Port Authority went to the voters to request a 1.75-mill property tax increase to build the slack-water harbor and create waterfront industrial sites away from the strong current of the Arkansas River. A study by the national consulting firm Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton estimated that construction of a slack-water harbor would produce 3,000 jobs with another 4,700 jobs created by the economic stimulus incoming industries would provide.

That increase was defeated by opposition from community groups. It wasn't until July 1986 that a combination of federal funding, effective local politicking and a millage increase would get the slack-water harbor construction started. Fourteen months later it was completed.

New Industries Arriving

The port's industrial park rocked along for years, then went through a period in which companies left, leaving empty buildings, five major structures unoccupied by the beginning of 1991.

However, since then, even as companies built new plants, those buildings began to fill up again with industry.

Omega Tube and Conduit Corp. recently added a 57,000-SF building for storage along with an 18,000-SF addition to its manufacturing building.

The Riverport Equipment Co., a division of TCBY Enterprises Inc., added 30,000 SF to its warehouse facilities. Democrat Printing & Lithographing Co. is adding 56,000 SF and installing a new press to increase capacity by 30 percent.

The Best Foods Division of C.P.C. International Inc. has completed an expansion that will increase production 30 percent and add 25 jobs.

Custom Engineering Products Co. acquired the 21,000-SF manufacturing facility formerly owned by Ershigs Inc., which had produced fiberglass storage tanks. CEPCO, which has 15 employees, will manufacture items for heavy equipment ranging from buckets for excavators to forks for logging equipment.

The former home of the Subaru South Distribution Center, vacated in January 1990, has 58,311 SF of space now used by Arkansas Power and Light Co.

Until the Sloane announcement, the biggest boost for the port industrial complex in years came in December 1990, when it was announced that Babcock & Wilcox would occupy a building that had been vacant since late 1987. The company eventually will employ 350 people to manufacture steam generators and boilers.

When Sloane and Babcock and Wilcox reach full employment level in two years, there will be about 1,500 people employed at the port without new industries locating there or expansions of current facilities.

"Marketing the port needs to be this city's No. 1 priority," former Mayor J.W. "Buddy" Benafield, a Port Authority member, says without hesitation. "It should be our crown jewel. It's the only real industrial park Pulaski County has. We owe it to the people who voted for the slack-water harbor to fill it up."

Herschel Friday is probably the most prominent attorney in a town full of lawyers. Like Benafield, he has a sense of noblesse oblige. Also like Benafield, he believes the port should be the centerpiece of Little Rock's development efforts in the 1990s.

"With completion of the slack-water harbor, we have a vehicle we can market," Friday says following a visit to the Port Authority offices. "The downside is the speed with which we have been able to produce results. I remain confident we'll see results. Of all the industrial sites in the country, this is one of the few that can offer what we can in the area of transportation.

"Everything is in place. Every dollar that has been spent out here will pay off."

Air Of Optimism

Port Authority Board members and city officials join Friday in publicly exuding an air of optimism.

"Yes, we said the harbor could attract 3,000 jobs, but we never set a time period for achieving that goal," says City Director Lottie Shackelford, a former mayor. "With construction of the slack-water harbor, we simply put ourselves in a position to attract jobs. Without the harbor, we would have no potential at all."

James R. Cobb, who replaced Brown on the Port Authority Board in July 1989, said those familiar with the decision-making process at major corporations are not discouraged.

"Opening a new plant is not like opening a retail outlet to sell yogurt," Cobb says. "A lot goes into those decisions, and the process takes time to complete. I don't think any of us were expecting overnight expansion once the slack-water harbor was finished. But when we get commitments, they'll be long-term investments that are not likely to leave after a few years."

William L. Cravens, the Port Authority Board chairman, agrees.

"We would like instant smokestacks, but that is not a realistic expectation," he says. "Impatience comes from a lack of experience in recruiting industry. Corporations do not make decisions overnight."

Others, however, say impatience is natural.

"It's been hard to see our efforts fail to bear more fruit," says Thedford Collins, who joined the Port Authority Board between the two 1985 millage elections. "It has not been for a lack of effort. We have an excellent complex, but we put the final pieces in place just when the economy began to slip.

"You must also remember the type of competition we're up against. We lost an Anheuser-Busch facility to Tennessee because their governor at the time had one of the company's distributorships. We also made the first contacts with companies that ended up elsewhere in Arkansas."

So is the port complex worth the investment?

"The slack-water harbor has not paid dividends yet," Collins concedes. "But I'm absolutely confident it will."

Benafield says the economic future of Little Rock depends on Collins' prediction coming true.

"Without the creation of jobs, our tax base will never increase," he says. "We're a small state. We're capital poor. Our priority must be attracting jobs. We can't continue to tax our people more in order to meet the increasing cost of city services. Benafield says he doesn't mind doing his share of the sales job.

"I believe I can convince anyone out there that we have the best product," he says, finishing his coffee from a mug that reads "Little Rock -- Full of Surprises."
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Title Annotation:Little Rock
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 30, 1992
Words:1302
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