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Sun Paper Project in Doubt as Arkadelphia Site Is Groomed for Other Prospects

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The Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance announced on Facebook Monday that it is preparing to market a 1,000-acre industrial property described as “the former Sun Bio site.”

Stephen Bell, CEO of the Arkadelphia alliance, said the massive Sun project, announced with fanfare almost four years ago, has not been officially canceled. “I wouldn’t say it was ominous, but it’s not good,” Bell said.

The alliance has retained ownership of the property and is working to get it certified by Entergy Arkansas, which would signal to industrial prospects and site selectors that it is ready for development. 

“We have to answer to Clark County residents,” Bell told Arkansas Business on Monday afternoon. 

Shandong Sun Paper Industry, the Chinese parent company, had originally planned a $1.3 billion pulp plant, but in 2018 changed the scope of the project to a paper mill that was expected to cost about $1.8 billion. Environmental permitting had to start over, and the development was then delayed by escalating trade tensions between China and the United States.

“If the project is going to be paused, we’re going to try to market the property,” Bell said. Sun Paper executives were informed of the plans several months ago, he said, but asked that the Arkadelphia alliance not start looking for a new tenant until after January in hopes that a trade agreement could be reached.

The local community put up $10 million to attract Sun, but Bell said that money has not been lost. Instead, some was used to buy the site and some is still available to build a railroad spur. 

Bell said Sun had invested several million in permitting and other preparation, including regular trips to Arkadelphia. “Genuine friendships” that developed over the past few years may still pay off, he said.

Mike Preston of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said he expects the project to move ahead.

“Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the State of Arkansas remain committed to the Sun Bio project in Arkadelphia, as does the company,” Preston said in an email to Arkansas Business. “While there have been delays due to multiple factors in China, we anticipate them moving forward with the project. The community has been supportive and patient and understandably wants to be prepared for other opportunities.”

Danny Games, director of business and economic development for Entergy Arkansas, said he met with Arkadelphia economic developers last fall about getting some or all of the site certified. “I think there’s just a reality that you go on parallel tracks” while still hoping for the Sun plant to rise.

There are about 50 items on the certification checklist, including cultural and environmental assessments, and a large site like the one in Clark County will require a lot of work, Games said.

Entergy currently has eight certified sites in Arkansas looking for industrial occupants, he said, including three certified late last year in the Port of Little Rock, Maumelle and Pine Bluff. And the Sun Bio site is not the only one that “will get attention and love this year,” Games said.

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