Arkansas got some good news this week on the economic development front amid a lot of bad news regarding COVID.
U.S. Steel on Tuesday announced it would invest $3 billion to build a plant in Osceola that will employ 900 people with an average salary of more than $100,000.
Construction is supposed to start this quarter and will last about two years. Once those jobs are filled, Mississippi County will be the nation’s leading steel-producing county – ahead of all others, including Allegheny County, Pa. The home county of the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t really produce much steel anymore.
For every job created, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said another 2.83 indirect jobs will be created in the supply chain and elsewhere. Another 2,000 construction jobs will be supported in the building of the factory.
Much of the plant’s raw material will be scrap metal, such as old cars. In that respect, it will be like a current factory in Osceola, Big River Steel, which recently was bought by U.S. Steel. Its raw material has included the old Broadway Bridge connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock. After it was demolished in 2016 (on the second try, if you’ll recall), it was transported by barge to Osceola.
Arkansas was competing with Alabama and Mississippi for the U.S. Steel plant. Osceola had a number of things going for it, including its existing steel industry, nearness to the Mississippi River and Arkansas Northeastern College’s steel tech program.
But Hutchinson told reporters at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday that the state wouldn’t have won the project without the government incentives that are often associated with economic development announcements, and always with the big ones. In a special session last year, lawmakers transferred $50 million to the Quick Action Closing Fund, which the governor can use to sweeten the pot, and there were other incentives.
The new plant was a huge win for Mississippi County, which lost 9,000 jobs in the years after Eaker Air Force Base closed in 1992 but has since regained 5,000 of them through steel manufacturers and other employers. To entice new employees to live there, the county is offering to pay 10 percent of the cost of a newly constructed home or 5 percent of the cost of purchasing and renovating a new home.
During his Q and A with reporters, Hutchinson hint-hint volunteered that having all this steel production puts Arkansas in a better position to recruit an auto manufacturing plant. He didn’t belabor the point, but it was more than an offhand comment. He made sure it got out there.
The state has been trying for years to attract an auto plant, as other Southern states have done, and it has had some wins: the Hino Motors plant in Marion, which makes various auto parts, and then last November the electric vehicle company Canoo announced it is moving its corporate headquarters, but not manufacturing facility, to Bentonville. So far, the type of huge assembly plant where shiny new cars roll off the line has eluded the state.
Hutchinson would love to be the governor that cuts the ribbon on the state’s first one. He has one year left.
Meanwhile, the news regarding COVID-19 was mostly bad through the first half of the week. On Wednesday, the governor announced the state had 10,974 new cases for a total of 71,134 active ones. That means that roughly one out of 42.5 Arkansans had COVID that day, and that includes only the people the state knows about. Hospitalizations that day had grown by 37 to 1,185.
The dominant omicron variant is generally milder than its predecessors, but people do die of it. This may be a bumpy but fast ride. The numbers soared but then quickly fell in South Africa, where the variant was first identified. Also, the governor said Tuesday that a survey of the state’s hospitals Jan. 4 found about 30 percent of their current patients who were listed by the state as having COVID had been admitted for other reasons and incidentally tested positive.
For those of us who have escaped infection so far, and also some of us who haven’t, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to get sick in the next few weeks. That’s discouraging, but hopefully this surge will peak soon if it hasn’t already.
Then in a couple of years, we might can get a job at a steel mill, if we’d like. And then … maybe an auto plant?
Does that help?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.