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The Little Rock Port: An Engine For Growth (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

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A rainy Wednesday morning could not dampen the spirits at the Little Rock Port, which is having a moment.

Last week, W&W/AFCO Steel, the Oklahoma City steel fabrication company with Little Rock roots, announced plans to lease the largest of the former LM Wind buildings at the port — a 138,846-SF behemoth that has sat vacant since the Danish windmill blade-maker pulled up stakes in 2020.

The $18.7 million investment should bring about 115 new jobs to the port during the next five years and boost AFCO’s Arkansas employment beyond 400. Most importantly, it will afford AFCO the space and resources it needs to expand production of fabricated structural steel for bridges and commercial buildings, an operation the company runs from Little Rock.

The announcement is the latest news to come out of the port in recent months as its leaders look for new ways to attract tenants and expand acreage amid a growing need for new commercial and industrial space.

Among the highlights:

Synthesia Technology Inc. of Barcelona, Spain, said in March that it will buy 15 acres at the port, so it can build a $30 million chemical components plant that will employ 50 workers. The port plant would be the company’s first in the U.S.; it has two in Barcelona and one in Panama.

Trex Co. of Winchester, Virginia, a composite decking manufacturer, in October announced plans to build a $400 million plant on 290 acres that will employ 500 people. Construction is set to begin this year with production starting in 2024. Both Synthesia and Trex would add significantly to revenue-generating rail car activity at the port. Trex committed to enough activity during the next 20 years that the port gave it the land for free.

Amazon.com Inc. of Seattle paid $3.2 million for its 80-acre port site in 2020, building and opened with blazing speed a five-story, 3.6 million-SF fulfillment center that employs 2,000 people and handles an avalanche of products daily. It was the first of two major fulfillment centers to open in the metro; another 1 million-SF center has since opened in North Little Rock.

There were also Revolution of Little Rock, the parent company of Delta Plastics, which in 2020 announced a $20 million, 36,000-SF expansion of its port manufacturing facility, and HMS Manufacturing Co. of Troy, Michigan, which that same year announced the $15.1 million purchase of a 557,950-SF building for a new injection molding operation. And last month, executives behind Epic Glass Recycling of Little Rock, formerly known as Ace Glass Recycling, said they want to put a $20 million glass processing facility in central Arkansas that would employ 50 people.

Their preferred location: the Little Rock Port.

Sixty-three years after it opened with 200 acres under management, the port boasts nearly 5,000 acres supporting 45 tenants and about 7,000 jobs. Its choice location provides easy access to two rail lines, major interstates and the Arkansas River.

If port leaders are able to make it happen, they will continue to add acreage and amenities. State and federal help play a role.

In the last five years, the port has received nearly $10 million in government grants that its leaders have poured into various infrastructure improvements, including increased rail capacity.

But another source of support has run out. As George Waldon reported in February, the city of Little Rock’s dedicated three-eighths-cent sales tax expired last year. From that 10-year tax, the port was able to fund $9.7 million in deals that grew its holdings by more than 2,000 acres.

As Port Authority Executive Director Bryan Day told Waldon, the port is in need of “a long-term acquisition strategy” — one that keeps it growing its footprint so it can add tenants and jobs.

Last week the city’s Board of Directors began debating a 20-year, $154 million bond proposal to fund an array of capital improvements. Included in the plan: $15 million for port expansion.

The debate has a long road ahead, and board members could conceivably take another approach entirely in funding a laundry list of city needs, everything from streets and drainage to parks and police cars.

But one thing’s for certain: The Little Rock Port is an economic engine hitting high gear, and we need to find the fuel to keep it running.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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