West Memphis boosters are optimistic the current surge of industrial prospects checking out local sites will produce some economic development news.
Scouts for a cold storage warehouse, solar panel manufacturing, electric vehicle-related production and a couple of chemical plants are taking lingering looks at the possibilities of setting up shop in the city.
Keith Ingram, a civic leader and former longtime member of the Arkansas Legislature, portrays the heightened activity on the local industrial recruiting front as remarkable.
“The sheer volume of prospects is greater than any time I remember in the last 20 years,” said Ingram, former state senator (2013-23), state representative (2009-13) and West Memphis mayor (1987-94).
“We’ve got a great economic team, and our mayor is young and aggressive. West Memphis has al-ways invested in economic development and had professional development directors, and that makes a difference. We have outstanding infrastructure. We know we have attractive sites.”
The biggest of the bunch is the 1,819-acre West Memphis I-40 Megasite on the western edge of the city. The build-ready property along the north side of the interstate between Highway 147 and Kuhn Road is under private ownership but held under option by West Memphis.
The city’s Mid-America Industrial Park contains two undeveloped 60- and 20-acre tracts. The park is home to 78-acre former Watkins Trucking freight terminal acquired in 2006 for $9 million by FedEx Freight, and the 665,000-SF Family Dollar Regional Distribution Center opened in 1994.
The most recent additions are the $15 million, 45,364-SF Sediver facility that began producing glass insulators in 2017, and Carvana’s $40 million, 210,111-SF vehicle inspection and distribution center that opened in 2021.
More than 2,000 acres of farmland await transformation into industrial land as part of the city’s planned 2,500-acre Rail Port Logistics Park. The project is envisioned as a destination for heavy industry that can use a transportation trifecta of rail, truck or barge at the city’s port facility on the Mississippi River.
“When it comes to economic development, we have all the attributes to serve business and industry,” said Marco McClendon, mayor of West Memphis. “We. Are. Here.”
Misses & Hits
The increased traffic of site selectors checking into potential West Memphis locations is helping lessen some of the heartache of unsuccessful recruiting efforts.
“We have agonizingly finished second on a number of major projects in the last three years, projects that would literally change West Memphis, Marion and Crittenden County,” Ingram said.
Among the recent misses is a $3 billion-plus, 1,700-employee electric vehicle battery cell plant that will be going to New Carlisle, Indiana.
In mid-June, joint venture partners General Motors and Samsung SDI announced the selection of a 686-acre site near the Michigan border less than 70 miles east of Chicago.
West Memphis made a run at landing 250 jobs associated with a nearly 1.1 million-SF Walmart fulfillment center. In January 2022, the retailing giant announced its selection of a recently completed facility on a 74-acre site in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
Vann Spear, senior vice president with the Memphis commercial realty firm of NAI Saig Co., wonders why these industrial developments ended up bypassing West Memphis.
“Why don’t we get some of these projects?” said Spear, who operates out of a West Memphis office. “The state and community do a great job. We get some, and we can’t complain. But it seems like there’s more activity in northwest Mississippi and east of Memphis.”
On the northwestern edge of West Memphis, a 600,000-SF distribution center owned and built in 2006 by TCB Development of Mokena, Illinois, is seeing new life.
Once leased to the J.M. Smucker Co. and lost through foreclosure in 2012, the industrial facility sat empty for several years.
That changed after an affiliate of New York’s EMP Partners bought the 36-acre development for $20 million in August 2021 from an affiliate of Exeter Property Group in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
The nearby Hino Motors plant stepped in to use the warehouse to enhance its just-in-time production and delivery capabilities.
“We started with a 300,000-SF lease to Hino in December 2021 and expanded to 400,000 SF last year,” said Holmes Davis, SVP and partner at the Dallas office of the Binswanger commercial realty firm.
The project is the lone development among seven privately owned industrial sites poised to take advantage of the nearby Union Pacific Railroad’s intermodal facility.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity that’s there with UP’s intermodal yard,” said David Elrod, principal broker at Elrod Real Estate in Little Rock. “We, as a community and state, just have to make sure that we have the incentive packages for everything you need to compete.”
The proximity to Memphis is a two-edged sword for industrial recruiting in West Memphis. Memphis is an amenity asset with its urban offerings only a short distance away and also a huge competitor for new job generators.
Despite the big-city competition, West Memphis has won some battles for commerce with its neighbor across the ditch as locals say, referring to the Mississippi River.
After buying the West Memphis soft drink production facility for nearly $3.4 million in 2017, Coca-Cola Consolidated of Charlotte, North Carolina, launched a $33 million expansion. Completed in 2020, the 200,000-SF project resulted in 60 jobs migrating from its Memphis operation.
The Port of West Memphis also has wooed away from the Memphis riverfront a string of big agriculture concerns that rely on water to move commodities. Consolidated Grain & Barge Co., Louis Dreyfus Co. and Cargill have all relocated to the city’s port area.
“Unlike the Port of Memphis, we’re on the deep side of the river and open whenever the river is too low over there,” said Ward Wimbish, director of economic development in West Memphis.
Plans for an expansion of the port include extending the rail line. While industrial recruitment soldiers on, city fathers are pushing forward to complete the fourth and final piece of a long-envisioned infrastructure improvement project.
The 2.5-mile extension of South Loop Drive west from Port Road to Airport Road could go out to bid this month. When finished, the roadway will enhance connectivity for the Rail Port Logistics Park to reach Interstate 40 on the western and eastern edges of West Memphis.
The fully realized 6.4-mile South Loop will create a restricted-access road for commercial truck traffic to bypass the city center. The new route is expected to relieve traffic along U.S. 70/Broadway Avenue, the main drag through West Memphis.
The 3.9-mile completed portion of the South Loop project already links the industrial park’s Port Road with U.S. 70 on the east side of the city and nearby interstate connections.
The West Memphis upgrades extend to quality of life items and city services.
Construction began this spring on the Hightower Park Amphitheater, a highlight project among a $9 million list of planned improvements for the city’s 10 parks and Tilden Rodgers Sports Complex.
“We’ve got a lot of good things going on in West Memphis,” Mayor McClendon said. “My problem is patience and waiting for more good things to happen.”
The $4.1 million West Memphis Public Library & Innovation Center opened in March 2021. The new 14,400-SF facility, double the size of its predecessor, was part of the city’s 2019 municipal building construction effort that totaled $12 million and encompassed a new courthouse, police substation and two new fire stations.