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Clark County comeback.

Arkadelphia And Surrounding Area See The Return Of More Than 1,000 Jobs, Top-Flight Companies

Three years ago, the 300-acre Clark County Industrial Park, just outside Gum Springs near Arkadelphia, resembled a ghost town. All that was missing were the tumbleweeds.

The large Fafnir Bearing Co. plant sat unoccupied, having closed in 1986. A smaller building that had been home to Construction Machinery Corp. and then the short-lived CBM Products was also vacant.

Reynolds Metals Co. had closed its nearby Patterson plant in 1986, too.

So what was the Clark County Industrial Council's answer to the problem?

They built a new 50,000-SF "shell" or speculative building.

Talk about believing in "if you build it, they will come." Kevin Costner was never so bold.

But they did come. And in the process, Arkadelphia and Clark County have enjoyed an economic resurgence beyond their wildest expectations.

Carrier Corp., a division of United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Conn., bought the 10-year-old, 342,000-SF building that once housed Fafnir. Since the 1989 purchase, Carrier has turned it into a $100 million plant producing scroll compressors and employing 450 people. Already, the company is considering plans for a major expansion even though the facility just recently opened.

Earlier this year, Hot Metal Molding Inc. found the old 22,000-SF CMC building just what it was looking for. It should be in operation in a couple of months.

And that spec building with no tenant just a short time back?

Petit Jean Poultry Inc. has been the occupant for two years, investing nearly $6 million. The plant, which debones chickens, has almost 600 workers.

That's not all.

A hilly expanse in the middle of the park is now flat as a pancake with steel girders being put in place for the new 600,000-SF Rohr Inc. facility.

The Chula Vista, Calif.-based jet engine component company chose the park in December and closed on a land sale in January. Production at the $25 million operation should start in June 1993. About 150 people are eventually expected to be employed.

And Reynolds, which had forsaken its Patterson reduction plant when the aluminum industry fell off, is returning and investing $50 million in the process to turn the 39-year-old building into a modern facility for turning potliner into ash. About 75 jobs will be available there.

Signs Indicate Turnaround

With all the work going on at the park, construction is bringing revenue to Arkadelphia again.

County unemployment, which bottomed out at more than 14 percent during one month during the dark days of 1986, is estimated now at 5.2 percent.

Housing starts are up. Service industries are moving in. Increased sales taxes indicate more spending. Arkadelphia even has two bowling alleys under construction.

Gurdon, about 17 miles south on U.S. 67, is benefitting, too. Reportedly, no rent houses are available there.

Jim Dane, executive director of the Clark County Industrial Council, hints to another indicator that good times have returned for the work force.

"Don't even try to get into Kregs Catfish restaurant at noon," he says of the renowned Arkadelphia establishment. "It's so crowded, you can't get in there."

Even if Arkadelphia and Clark County had not experienced the economic catastrophe of 1985-89, what they are experiencing today still would be considered astounding.

As it is, "it's been magical the way it's worked out for us," says Bob Fisher, president of the Industrial Council.

Despite the industrial dropoff, Arkadelphia never was a candidate to shrivel up and blow away.

Two colleges -- Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University -- always have served as the focus in this hamlet of 10,000-plus on the Ouachita River, 70 miles or so southwest of Little Rock.

But Arkadelphia was thriving quite nicely until the slap-in-the-face industry pullout that began in 1985.

First to go was Levi Strauss & Co., which meant the immediate loss of several hundred jobs. Apparel manufacturers were finding it more economically feasible to produce overseas, Fisher says.

Reynolds and Fafnir were to follow.

Fafnir's main bearing clients, farm implement makers and the oil industry, took their heaviest hits in the mid-'80s and started the domino effect that toppled the Arkadelphia plant.

Reynolds closed four reduction plants, including the Patterson and Jones Mill facilities in Arkansas. The 1950s technology at the plant had become outmoded. It was power intensive in a day when cost of energy had risen, and aluminum demand was low, says Reynolds spokesman Ronnie Thomas.

At that point, Arkadelphia had lost more than 1,000 jobs.

Fisher, an Arkadelphia native and Henderson graduate, returned home in 1986 as dean of the HSU business school.

He could not believe what he was seeing. Two months after his return, Fisher saw Reynolds depart. A few weeks later, Fafnir bid adieu.

"I just asked myself, 'What have I done? What a great career move I've made here,'" Fisher recalls.

He says complacency may have set in with the community, that there was no desire to grow. But he says he knew it had "too much character to fold."

Still, Fisher kept hearing refrains from Bruce Springsteen's song "My Hometown."

"You know the lines, 'Troubled times they had come to my hometown. They're closing down the factories across the track and those jobs aren't coming back, to my hometown.'

"That was kind of a challenge. We said, 'Yes, they are |coming back~, too.'"

People like Al Lynch, who started the Clark County Action Committee, the forerunner to the CCIC, and Percy Malone stepped forward. Malone served as CCIC's president for its first three years.

And Clark County went looking for business.

First, it turned to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

"We asked them, 'How come you don't bring us some prospects?'" Fisher recalls.

The answer was blunt. Yes, Clark County might have an industrial park, but some things about the community made it unattractive to industry, the biggest being no capacity for treating industrial waste water.

To tackle that problem, the CCIC got an OK from Arkadelphia to run its industrial waste through the city's treatment facility. It still required a million-dollar pipeline to run the waste from the park to town, and that called for a 1-cent county sales tax, which voters overwhelming supported.

At the time, the park was privately held by Arkadelphia banks. The CCIC purchased the park and assumed a debt of nearly $700,000.

"It was a huge risk because the banks had owned the park for years and hadn't been able to sell any land or get anyone to locate there," Fisher says.

They rolled the dice once more and erected the spec building. Then, things began to happen.

It began with Aalfs Manufacturing, a maker of denim overalls, pants and shirts, taking over the old Levi plant in town.

Carrier, already familiar with Arkansas with its 10-year-old air handling plant in Maumelle, found the empty Fafnir building perfect for its new scroll compressor production. Carrier officials say the plant's immediate users are installation factories at Tyler, Texas, and Collierville, Tenn., and Arkadelphia logistically is right in the middle.

Karl J. Krapek, Carrier's chairman, president and CEO, says the plant is "one of the most advanced and efficient manufacturing plants of its kind in the world."

Landing Rohr was another story.

A competitive battle eventually narrowed to Arkadelphia and Auburn, Ala.

"This game was won, believe me, by Bob Fisher and |AIDC Executive Director~ Dave Harrington," says Dane. "They hung in until the end. Everybody else had just about said, 'We can't make this. We can't do all these things.'"

Fisher confesses, "Truth is, they did contact us at one point and say, 'You're out of the loop.'"

But the Clark County contingent kept pushing, and it now had the AIDC's full cooperation.

"I will never forget the last trip to Chula Vista," Fisher says. "Out and back in the same day. We were told, 'Auburn has a new offer on the table, looks like we're going to go with it. Do you guys want to make one more pitch?' We said, 'Yes, when?' They said, 'Tomorrow, at like 10:30 or 11 in the morning.' We got our tickets. We did it, and Dave did a wonderful job ... He's skillful and negotiates tough."

Arkadelphia will serve as a detail parts manufacturing facility to produce parts for Rohr's nine other plants, including facilities at Sheridan and Heber Springs. Only the Chula Vista operation has handled detail parts manufacturing up to now.

"A lot of that will move to Arkadelphia over time," says Mark Bergherr, manager of corporate relations.

Rohr's plants produce components for engine nacelle systems, the aerodynamic structure that surrounds a jet engine. Rohr supplies them for commercial, business and military aircraft.

State Help

In the cases of Rohr and Carrier, the state agreed to train employees to the companies specifications at no charge to the companies, Fisher says. The Industrial Park was established as an enterprise zone for tax advantages. Rohr officials indicate Arkansas' regulatory environment is more streamlined than those on the West Coast.

"The state of Arkansas was very responsive to our needs," Rohr's Bergherr says. "They supply training programs and help bring in services and utilities to the facility. They pretty much deliver on every promise that they make."

South Central Electric Cooperative, Arkansas Power & Light Co. and Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., all with service to the park, have been supportive of the CCIC efforts, Fisher says.

Reynolds developed a thermal treatment process that it used in kilns at its Hurricane Creek testing plant near Bauxite for the past couple of years, successfully turning potliner (carbon-based residue from the smelting) into non-hazardous ash.

The Richmond, Va.-based company is transferring the process to Clark County with a start-up date pinpointed for April.

Reynolds, Thomas says, hopes the resultant ash can be marketed, possibly to cement companies and the like.

Dane arrived in Arkadelphia in January 1991 with 36 years experience in community and industrial development. His most recent stops include Liberal, Kan.; Palm Coast, Fla.; and Kalamazoo, Mich.

He can quickly rattle off the area's advantages to attracting industry.

"Power, water, sewer, gas, electric, mainline rail, highway, interstate, the community, universities, top-rated elementary and secondary schools, location and access," he says. "Put them together ... about 18,000 other organizations are competing for these businesses.

"You can't get too cocky."

New technology is the trend with each of the new industries in Clark County.

"They're going to be here for a long time," Dane says. "You don't put those kinds of facilities in the ground and walk away from it. Carrier, the kind of investment they've made, $100 million, they're going to be here for awhile."

Adds Fisher, "It's not like we've got a lot of jobs that should go away real soon."

Fisher's goal now is to make sure the complacency that may have set in during the 1980s doesn't return. In the meantime, the CCIC has built another 50,000-SF spec building at the park to try to market.

So far, they've had a few nibbles, nothing serious. But, hey, it worked before.
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Title Annotation:new plant constructions at Clark County
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 26, 1992
Words:1848
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