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The Mississippi County Success Story (Clif Chitwood Commentary)

Clif Chitwood Commentary
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Industrial recruitment is a highly competitive sport.

Location and political atmosphere count. Workforce availability and training capacity count. And money counts, often more than double.

Mississippi County residents understand this well. They have seen the benefits of using public funds to lower the capital cost of new economic development projects and how that results in improved economic, education and quality-of-life opportunities.

You’ve undoubtedly seen many headlines in Arkansas Business related to Mississippi County attracting billions of dollars in investments.

To date, the people of Mississippi County, in partnership with local entities, have invested approximately $78 million of local economic development funds to win industrial projects. The state of Arkansas, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Entergy, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and four governors of Arkansas have been constant partners, along with local government leaders.

These investments have resulted in $8 billion of private capital investment in Mississippi County and the creation of approximately 8,000 jobs.

Faced with decades of population stagnation, the loss of 9,000 jobs and greater economic hardships in the 1990s — more than any decade since the Great Depression — the future did not look bright for our residents. Mississippi County residents are motivated for more.

They want opportunities. They want jobs. They want and have earned better.

In 2002, we presented a countywide sales tax designated to develop the state’s first county-level economic development foundation to recruit jobs and businesses to Mississippi County.

It worked so well that our residents renewed the 10-year tax in 2012 and again in 2022. It will now run until 2033, and I anticipate another renewal.

Three decades later, we are the largest steel-producing county in the United States.

We have advantages like the Mississippi River, the BNSF Railroad, large natural gas pipelines and lots of flat land. But what set us apart from the many communities along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi? I believe it was our people and our will to challenge a future we did not want — to challenge it with our tax dollars, public support for economic development, and, most importantly, the belief that our future belonged to us.

People seem to have less and less appetite for taxes these days. So how have we done it in Mississippi County? Well, it’s hard to beat a 10,156% return on investment. That’s the result of $78 million invested by the county and $8 billion invested by local companies.

Those companies — Nucor, Zekelman, Lexicon Inc., Big River Steel, Hybar and others — have invested in large buildings and efficiencies, in addition to our people. An average steel industry worker makes in excess of $140,000 annually.

Several of our major employers are returning the favor of our investment by helping ensure their workers live where they work. Including through the Work Here, Live Here program, which invests 10% toward the purchase price of qualifying homes. So far, approximately $3 million has been invested toward the construction of 55 new homes.

Companies are also investing in workforce training, giving residents an opportunity to gain the skills needed to join or remain in the industry as it becomes more efficient and tech-forward.

So what is the magic playbook for industrial recruitment? A region of people who are willing to invest in themselves and their future.

Clif Chitwood is CEO and president of the Great River Economic Development Foundation. He has been at the forefront of industry growth in Mississippi County that has led it to become the top steel-producing region in the U.S.  He can be reached at clif@cottontosteel.com.
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