Arkansas Business: Mississippi County Rebuilds on Steel
By Mark Friedman
Mississippi County has seen its revenue jump in recent years thanks to the steel industry. Now government officials hope people will start moving to the county and reverse a longtime decline in population.
Mississippi County officials are working to attract residents to the northeast Arkansas county north of Memphis. The county has seen its population decrease every year since 2015. About 38,900 people lived in the county as of July 1, 2022. In 1970, the population was 62,000.
But the county’s revenue has been climbing. Sales tax receipts jumped from $16.7 million in 2016 to $27.5 million in 2022. The revenue is expected to climb higher when U.S. Steel Corp. completes its $3 billion steel mill in 2024.
And other steel projects are joining the parade. In November 2022, Highbar LLC said it planned to build a $500 million steel rebar mini-mill near Osceola, creating 200 direct and indirect jobs. It is expected to be completed in 2025.
The combined employment at the county’s four steel mills — Nucor-Hickman, Nucor-Yamato, Big River Steel and the new mill — will be about 4,000 people. “They’ve had a tremendous impact on our county,” Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson said. “There’s been many, many changes that have taken place in the last 25 years, but certainly in the last five years.”
One of the county’s top challenges now is attracting people; many of the steelworkers drive to their jobs from western Tennessee and southeast Missouri. The county has hired lobbying firms and public relations firms to attract businesses and improve its infrastructure.
One of the county’s programs, “Work Here, Live Here,” which started in 2022, has sparked housing developments. The credit program, an initiative of the Mississippi County Economic Development Commission, pays 10% of the purchase price of any new home bought by eligible local employees working in the manufacturing sector. Under the program, buyers can save up to $50,000 on the new homes.
The county doesn’t track numbers on new home construction, but Nelson said “we have built more homes in Mississippi County in the last 18 months, two years, than we had in the last 40 years. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Olympus Construction of Jonesboro and the Magaman Group LLC of Mountain Home have plans to build 100 homes in Osceola. The first homes are expected to be ready for sale in October.
Also, Nelson said, because of money flowing into the county’s coffers, it recently awarded $2 million in grants through its Mississippi County Infrastructure Grant Program.
Nelson said 11 grants were awarded to cities in the county to help them grow, with the money to be used for projects such as upgrading wastewater systems.
The county also has hired two Little Rock public relations firms, Cranford Co. and The Peacock Group, to help market the county. In 2022, the county hired the lobbying firms Tiber Creek Group of Washington, D.C., and Mullenix & Associates LLC of Little Rock.
Nelson said the county is working with the lobbying firms to appeal to the Arkansas congressional delegation to find funds for road improvement projects that are estimated to cost around $69 million.
“The biggest increase [in traffic] that we’ve seen in the last few months would be south of Osceola, and we’re in terrible need of roadways there,” Nelson said.
Other parts of the proposed project include extending Interstate 55 to Osceola. Nelson also would like to add an overpass at West Keiser Avenue and U.S. Highway 61.
Osceola on the Hunt
The city of Osceola has launched its own efforts to recruit businesses. At the beginning of the year, the city hired Kelley Commercial Partners of Little Rock to woo businesses to the city of about 8,000 people.
“Myself and the citizens of Osceola, we’re very excited about the growth,” Mayor Joe Harris Jr. said. “And we’ve lost so much population; we’ve lost so many jobs in the past few years. “Now we have a chance to redeem ourselves. … We’re moving fast every day on the phone and meeting with different companies and … retail, trying to sell the idea of moving to Osceola.”
Voters approved increasing the countywide sales tax from 2% to 2.5% for economic development effective April 1, 2015 Source: Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration
The city is working with Kelley Commercial’s Jim Dailey, vice president of government relations, who said he is working on some developments and expects to have an announcement soon.
Dailey, a former Little Rock mayor, said the steel industry in Mississippi County, with its six-figure salaries and the influx of employees who are expected when Highbar and U.S. Steel open their new plants, makes it easy to attract development to the area.
“There’s a lot of interest in providing the types of quality-of-life amenities that relate to business, retail, … other job categories that will be available, as well as housing,” Dailey said.
Turning to Steel
The steel mills have given the county a lifeline.
“It’s made all the difference in the world for Mississippi County,” said Clif Chitwood, the head of the Great River Economic Development Foundation, the economic development agency for Mississippi County. “I mean, otherwise, it would pretty much be a very quiet, agricultural county with absolutely no jobs for our young people.”
In the past, Mississippi County high school graduates went off to college, “and they never came back because there wasn’t anything to come back to,” Chitwood said. “But now there is.”
The steel industry in the county started in 1988, when Nucor-Yamato Steel opened a mill in Blytheville. Nucor-Hickman followed with a mill in 1992.
But the closure of Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville in 1992, resulting in 700 jobs lost, was a blow to the county, whose population had been declining for decades.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the county was the largest-producing cotton county in the country, Nelson said. But the mechanization of agriculture reduced the demand for employees. “We had an exodus of a lot of our population. And then when the air base closed, we got a huge exodus there in the northern part of the county.”
The population continued to fall in the 1990s from 57,525 to 51,979 in 2000. “So about that time is when the leaders of the community came together and decided that we needed to do something to turn this continued drop in population to try to turn that around,” Nelson said.
The steel mills also have created a demand for a more specialized workforce, Nelson said. The county has partnered with Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville to help with training students for a career in the steel industry.
Nelson touts the $130,000 annual salary for a graduate with a degree in steel industry technology from the two-year college.
Supervisors at the steel mills can earn between $250,000 and $350,000, said Chitwood.
“But they are high-tech jobs,” he said. U.S. Steel’s “Big River Steel has a motto that we’re a technology company that happens to make steel. And that is true.”
Unemployment a Factor
But not everyone in the county is working at a steel mill. In 2020, the county’s average unemployment rate was 9% when the state’s was 6.1%.
The unemployment rate for the county has since fallen to 5.2% for 2022, but it still lags behind the state’s average of 3.3%.
“We’re working on that right now,” Nelson said. Mississippi County is working to recruit companies unrelated to the steel industry, such as retail and restaurants, he said. Nevertheless, the steel industry, with its multibillion-dollar investments, gets credit for bailing out the county.
“I have friends whose sons are in their mid-20s. Now they’re making $150,000 a year,” Chitwood said. “They’re buying homes. They’re having children. You know, life will continue in Mississippi County.”