1. Inflation Takes a Toll
The highest levels of inflation seen in 40 years bedeviled the economy in 2022, though year-end signs hinted at an inflationary slowdown.
In November, the consumer price index rose 7.1%, compared with the previous year. But that’s down from a blistering 9.1% in June, the highest rate of the year so far.
Many factors drove inflation, including the pandemic after-effects. Among these were strong consumer demand, labor shortages, supply chain troubles and trillions in government pandemic relief funding. Russia’s war on Ukraine contributed to soaring energy prices.
A barrel of Brent crude oil was at $77.45 on Dec. 12, down 32% from $114.19 on June 8. After rising to $5.02 on June 14, the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline stood at $3.26 on Dec. 12, according to AAA, below $3.33 a year earlier.
Home prices jumped 45% between January 2020 and June 2022, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index.
Walmart Inc. of Bentonville reported strong third-quarter sales as shoppers, searching for deals, turned to the retailer known for low prices.
The Federal Reserve, trying to cool the inflation inferno, began raising interest rates in March, pushing up the cost to borrow money, including for homes. On Tuesday, the average rate for the benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage was 7.32%, according to Bankrate.com. Existing-home sales declined for the ninth straight month in October, according to the National Association of Realtors.
On Wednesday, the Fed raised interest rates again and signaled its intent to keep doing so at its next few meetings.
Arkansas businesses grappled with high prices in a variety of ways. Restaurants raised prices and construction firms planned better, but hospitals struggled.
The question for 2023: Will the U.S. pull out of the inflationary spiral without a recession?
2. First Female Governor
The biggest political race in Arkansas this year was a foregone conclusion, but an amazing story nonetheless.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, sailed to the governor’s office on oceans of support from fans of President Donald Trump, for whom she worked as press secretary. Sanders’ campaign focused on national GOP themes of fighting Democrats’ “radical, liberal agenda,” drew heavily from out-of-state donors and raised $9.2 million in the general election — well beyond competitors Democrat Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. When she campaigned in Arkansas, she largely avoided the press and participated in exactly one debate, on Arkansas PBS.
The result: The Associated Press called the governor’s race for Sanders within minutes of the polls closing. Sanders will be Arkansas’ first female governor and the first child of an Arkansas governor to become an Arkansas governor. (For the first time, women will hold the state’s top two constitutional offices: Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, once a rival for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, was elected lieutenant governor.)
It was quite a journey for a woman raised in politics. In 2010, Sanders was campaign manager for John Boozman, who unseated Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln. In 2014, she was senior adviser to Tom Cotton in his successful campaign to dislodge Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor.
In 2017, she became Trump’s deputy press secretary and took over the top job in July of that year. She held the fewest news conferences of any press secretary before her and admitted during Robert Mueller’s investigation that she made a false statement about FBI members being grateful that Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey.
In June 2019, Sanders announced she would leave the White House. Trump immediately said she would make a good governor, sending the Arkansas political world abuzz. She announced her candidacy in January 2021. Next month, she’ll experience her first legislative session as governor — one that could focus on criminal justice and education.
3. Magnetic Quality of Steel
The steel-fueled economic development party in Mississippi County kept rollicking in 2022 with hundreds of new jobs following billions of investment dollars.
The year began giddily with U.S. Steel’s January announcement and February groundbreaking of an optimized production facility equipped with two electric arc furnaces capable of delivering 3 million tons of steel per year.
Arkansas beat out Alabama and Mississippi to land the Pittsburgh-headquartered steelmaker’s $3 billion project, estimated to create 900 direct and indirect jobs and headed toward completion in 2024.
Next came Envirotech Vehicles’ selection of Osceola for its first electric car plant as well as its new corporate home. The company completed final assembly of its first EV in April at a former Fruit of the Loom factory.
Envirotech is expected to finish an $80 million facelift of the 580,000-SF facility and employ as many as 800 by 2027.
The proximity to Mississippi County steel plants also prompted Chicago’s Zekelman Industries to add a third Blytheville facility to its production network. In September, the company announced the late 2023 arrival of its Wheatland Tube project.
News of the inline steel tube galvanizing plant came after Zekelman opened its second Atlas Tube plant in May, a $150 million electric resistance welding steel mill.
In November, Highbar LLC unveiled its plans for a $500 million steel rebar mini-mill near Osceola expected to create 200 direct and indirect jobs.
Construction of the facility, which will also accommodate sustainable scrap metal recycling, should launch in the second quarter of 2023 and wind down in 2025.
Mississippi County’s glad manufacturing tidings were accompanied by news from Entergy Arkansas: about a new 250-megawatt project near Osceola dubbed Driver Solar.
The 2,100-acre project will be the state’s biggest solar energy complex. Capable of supplying enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes, the solar array will supply juice for U.S. Steel’s new plant under construction nearby.
4. Execs in One Basket: Tyson Is Bringing 1,000 to Springdale
Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale announced in October that it was relocating its executive teams from its satellite offices in Chicago and Downers Grove, Illinois, and Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, to Springdale.
The company called the initiative OneTyson, saying it will involve about 1,000 employees. The project was designed to improve collaboration and innovation, the company said.
The move will require expansion and renovation of the company’s Springdale headquarters during the next few years, with the relocations scheduled to begin in 2023. As part of the move, Tyson Foods paid Walmart Inc. $19.3 million for a 134,000-SF facility on Thompson Street it is calling Tyson on Thompson.
“Bringing our talented corporate team members and businesses together under one roof unlocks greater opportunities to share perspectives and ideas, while also enabling us to act quickly to solve problems and provide the innovative products solutions that our customers deserve and value,” Tyson Foods CEO Donnie King said.
The Northwest Arkansas Council estimated the economic impact of the move could be as high as $250 million annually. Council CEO Nelson Peacock said the relocation numbers represented about one-tenth of the region’s annual population growth.
“These are high-level corporate jobs,” Peacock said. “It helps us create an environment where there are more of those types of people here. We’re trying to create a cluster as we continue to expand economically. We’re trying to make sure we grow for the next generation. It’s a big deal and we are excited about it.”
The OneTyson announcement came just after the company announced a restructuring of its executive team, most notably the promotion of John R. Tyson to CFO. Tyson, the 32-year-old son of Chairman John Tyson, had joined the company in 2019 when he was named chief sustainability officer.
John R. Tyson later made national news when he was arrested in the early morning hours of Nov. 6 after Fayetteville police said he fell asleep in a stranger’s bed while drunk. He pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges and has a trial date in February.
The company’s independent board members reviewed the incident and announced it had confidence in Tyson continuing as CFO.
5. Lyon College’s Grand Plan For Dental and Vet Schools
In April, Arkansas Business was first to report Lyon College’s plan to develop veterinary and dental medicine schools, the first such schools in Arkansas.
Since the announcement, the private liberal arts college in Batesville has moved closer to its goal of establishing the two graduate schools in its new Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences in Little Rock. Its intention is to start classes in fall 2024, but Lyon first must achieve accreditation for both programs and hire faculty.
Lyon College has partnered with OneHealth Education Group of Little Rock to help with the process. OneHealth is led by President Frazier Edwards, a former president of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association, and Merritt Dake, the former CEO of the dental health care provider Rock Dental Brands of Little Rock.
Lyon also joined with the Academy for Advancing Leadership of Atlanta to consult on the dental school and the Animal Policy Group of Scottsdale, Arizona, to advise on the veterinary school.
Lyon said it will buy the 28-acre campus of Heifer International of Little Rock, including its four-story 94,000-SF main building, to house both programs.
Good news for the project continued in November when Lyon said it will partner with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock to “identify opportunities for joint teaching, research, graduate education and professional development” for the Lyon College School of Oral Health & Dental Medicine.
The Higher Learning Commission’s Institutional Actions Council in November gave its initial approval to Lyon College’s request to offer Doctor of Medical Dentistry and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees.
Lyon College President Melissa Taverner called the approval a “major milestone.” The college’s next step is to complete and submit initial applications for professional accreditation to the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association and the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Lyon plans to file those applications in early 2023.
6. Robinson Is UA Chancellor
Robinson, the first Black chancellor at the university, had been the interim chancellor since predecessor Joe Steinmetz resigned in July 2021. The University of Arkansas System board voted unanimously for Robinson, ending a monthlong stalemate between members in favor of Robinson and those for University of Utah professor Daniel Reed.
“I’m looking forward to serving our campus in its entirety and greatly appreciate the support and confidence shown in me to be a good steward of the Land-grant mission,” said Robinson, a fixture at UA since 1999.
System President Donald Bobbitt and prominent booster Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton, were among those supporting Reed.
Walton wrote an op-ed column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette extolling Reed, a former Microsoft Corp. executive, for his expertise in building a “pipeline for applicable and marketable academic research.”
The Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation donated $195 million for UA’s Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research, which broke ground April 1 with Robinson and Walton, among others, wielding shovels.
Robinson had the support of business titans such as Dillard’s Inc. CEO William Dillard II and Johnelle Hunt, the co-founder of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Twelve former UA student body presidents wrote in support of Robinson’s candidacy.
“Dr. Robinson has proven to be a very good steward of the university and its Land-grant mission during his time as interim chancellor,” Bobbitt said.
“He now has the opportunity to cast a broader vision for advancing the university as a leading public research university in the region and raising its status on the national stage.
“He has a unique ability to inspire others and to relate to the many different constituencies across the university, and I look forward to working with him to help make his tenure as chancellor a success.”
7. Passing on Marijuana
Arkansans just said no on Nov. 8, rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have put the state in line with national trends by legalizing recreational marijuana.
Issue 4 was one of four amendments voted down in a rare sweep of rejection by Arkansas voters.
After early polls hinted at success, sentiment turned against the proposal, which was backed by the medical cannabis industry, and it went down soundly with less than 44% of about 900,000 ballots cast.
The amendment would have granted all existing medical marijuana cultivation and dispensary companies matching licenses for a much larger recreational market open to all buyers 21 and over, a carve-out that put off many otherwise favorable voters.
And an “unusual alliance” of liberals, conservatives and libertarians, including a substantial number who had doubts about the opaque process that granted the medicinal licenses in the first place, doomed the measure.
The industry spent nearly $5 million trying to pass it, countered by just under $2 million in spending by opponents, including Mountaire Corp. CEO Ron Cameron and Jerry Cox of the Family Council.
Business groups, employers and conservative political leaders like Gov. Asa Hutchinson campaigned against it, and even legalization advocates like attorney David Couch of Little Rock, author of the medicinal cannabis amendment. The recreational amendment was the only one initiated by signatures of voters; the others were referred for the ballot by the Arkansas General Assembly. Only one came close to passage.
An amendment to enshrine individual religious freedom into the Constitution came lost by a hair, claiming 49.6% of the vote.
Another amendment, which would have changed the amendment process itself, never held much sway with voters perhaps because it would have diminished their power. It would have raised the vote percentage required to alter the Constitution from a simple majority to a formidable 60%, and it was rejected by 59% of voters.
An amendment to allow state legislators to call themselves into special session, a privilege constitutionally reserved for the governor, was the most unpopular of all, winning just 39% of the vote.
University of Arkansas political scientist Karen Sebold told Arkansas Business that while Issue 4, the marijuana vote, commanded the most attention and money, all of the issues faced an uphill battle with a conservative electorate.
“Conservative voters distrust government,” she said, “and therefore are less likely to expand the power of the government as the ballot measures might have done one way or another.”
8. Hospitals Struggle
Finances at Arkansas hospitals remained in critical condition in 2022.
Institutions of all sizes struggled with stagnant reimbursement rates for services and increased costs for labor and supplies tied to the effects of COVID-19.
“I’m hearing it from every member across the state,” Bo Ryall, president and CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, told Arkansas Business in May. “They say that the first quarter of 2022 is the worst quarter for hospital finances that anybody’s seen in their career.”
Hospitals responding to an AHA survey conducted in June and July reported an average margin decrease of 3.5 percentage points between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of this year. And 52% of the hospitals that responded were operating at a loss, Ryall said.
The problem was even more acute for rural hospitals, which provide their communities with health care access and are key for economic development. Arkansas has 48 rural hospitals, and 22 of those were in danger of closing, according to an October report from the nonprofit Center for Healthcare Quality & Payment Reform of Pittsburgh.
During the summer, Ouachita County Medical Center in Camden was rapidly running out of cash. In September, it received a $6 million financial infusion after applying for state American Rescue Plan Act funds — money that helped but won’t solve all its financial problems.
The financial health of hospitals isn’t expected to improve if government and commercial health insurance companies don’t increase their reimbursements for services.
Another financial burden on hospitals was linked to the money they borrowed at the beginning of COVID through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Accelerated & Advance Payments Program. CMS was recouping the money through the hospitals’ regular Medicare payments.
But hospitals hoped for improved balance sheets in 2023. The Arkansas Department of Human Services worked with the AHA on a rate review for inpatient and outpatient hospital rates for Medicaid patients. As of last week, the rate review was in progress.
9: Westrock Goes Public; USA Truck Goes Private
Arkansas’ ever-changing list of publicly traded companies saw one major addition and one major departure in 2022.
Westrock Coffee Co. of Little Rock began trading publicly on Aug. 29 by merging with Riverview Acquisition Corp. of Memphis, a SPAC — special purpose acquisition company — formed in 2021. Westrock Coffee was founded in 2009 by the Ford family that built Alltel Corp., took it public and sold it 15 years ago.
The Nasdaq stock, trading under the symbol WEST, opened that day at $11.45 and has generally traded between $13 and $15. Westrock, led by CEO Scott Ford, reported revenue of $640.1 million for the first three quarters of 2022, compared with $507.7 million for the same period in 2021 and $698 million for the full year.
Westrock has announced that it will invest some $275 million to upgrade the former Kimberly-Clark manufacturing plant in Conway that it bought a year ago.
USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren, which went public in 1992, was acquired in September by privately held DB Schenker of Essen, Germany. The deal, which had been announced in June, was worth about $435 million, including the assumption of debt. It was the culmination of a financial turnaround led by James Reed, CEO since 2017.
A much smaller publicly traded company also made Arkansas its home in 2022: Envirotech Vehicles Inc. relocated from Corona, California, to Osceola in April. The electric vehicle maker, which trades on Nasdaq under the symbol EVTV, reported net income of $126,749 in the third quarter on revenue of $3.9 million from the sale of 37 vehicles. It was the first quarterly profit in the history of the company, which was founded in 2012.
A more prominent publicly traded electric car maker, Canoo Inc., announced in 2021 that it would move its headquarters from Torrance, California, to Bentonville. In mid-December, Canoo’s official filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission still listed the headquarters in California.
10. Brine Time
The search for figurative gold in the underground brine of south Arkansas intensified in 2022 with Standard Lithium of Canada and several rivals testing the commercial viability of pulling battery-quality lithium ingredients from the waters, and Albemarle announcing a $540 million investment in two facilities in Magnolia that draw bromine from them.
Albemarle, which is also investigating lithium’s potential, is expanding and upgrading two bromine plants in Magnolia that filter the brine, once a petroleum drilling byproduct when El Dorado and Smackover were oil boom towns.
Standard Lithium, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has used two pilot plants attached to the existing bromine infrastructure of the German multinational Lanxess to produce small batches of lithium products for the battery market. It gained other big-name allies in its quest this year.
Koch Minerals & Trading LLC and OPD LLC are two of several Koch Industries companies that have joined in the effort, disregarding claims by short-sellers that Standard Lithium has overhyped its technology and production capacity. OPD will judge the feasibility of a big commercial lithium plant in south Arkansas, as well as prospects for other Standard projects south of Magnolia, including a brine pipeline.
The company received a $100 million investment in late 2021 from Koch Strategic Platforms, another arm of the Wichita-based conglomerate led by David Koch. The results of a front-end engineering design study for the commercial plant are expected by July.
Galvanic Energy of Oklahoma City has also staked a south Arkansas lithium claim, 120,000 acres in Lafayette and Columbia counties that the company said tested out as one of North America’s richest lithium sources. Galvanic CEO Brent Wilson said the brinelands provide the battery makings for 50 million electric cars. In a four-year search across the U.S., Wilson said, “Smackover was the brightest of all the prospects.”
Albemarle, which is also investigating lithium possibilities, announced its $540 million plan in November, pledging to expand and modernize the two plants in Magnolia. The expansion should create 250 construction jobs and add at least 60 permanent jobs, the company said. With about 400 employees and 200 contractors, Albemarle was already the largest corporate employer in Columbia County.