A quick spin through the Port of Little Rock yields a glimpse of the city’s industrial community foreign to many residents. Everything out here is huge — the gargantuan factories sprawling across the landscape; the raw materials and finished products that move in and out by semi-truck and railroad car; the silent, massive barges that glide by on the Arkansas River.
At the far edge of the bustling area sits the Port Authority headquarters, a stylish building of brick and glass with a breathtaking view of the water. It’s a site that never fails to catch Executive Director Bryan Day’s imagination, as does the confluence of logistical resources that makes the industrial park one of the hottest addresses going.
“I’m biased, but it’s a huge deal out here,” he said, leaning back in his chair as he scanned the rolling river. “We have easy access to the interstate, which is still the easiest way to move goods and commodities. We have two Class I railroads, the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern, that can bring or ship products and goods. And we have the airport, which you can see from here, right across the interstate.
“And then we have access to the river, which, on a typical year, is the only river in the country that is usable year-round. Now, that wasn’t true last year because we had the record flood, but compared with the Ohio and the Great Lakes, which freeze, and the lower Mississippi, which floods regularly, the Arkansas River is generally very dependable.”
Such a place didn’t happen by accident but by tragedy. The seeds for what would become the Port of Little Rock were sown by Arkansas’ landmark flood of 1927, the worst in the state’s history. The disaster inspired formation of the Arkansas River Flood Control Association that formed to lobby members of Congress for a comprehensive flood-control program.
In 1936, Congress finally responded by passing a landmark act creating the Southwestern Division of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which began work on the upper Arkansas, Red, White and Black river basins to improve flood control and commercial navigation. Sens. John McClellan of Arkansas and Robert Kerr of Oklahoma became the firebrands for funding what would become the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, a 443-mile system of 17 locks and dams, which came fully online in the closing days of 1970.
“In doing that, there were several cities that said, ‘Hey, we need to get in the game,’” Day said. “So, the cities of Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Muskogee and Tulsa said, ‘Let’s have ports,’ in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Our forefathers had the foresight in 1959 to create a port, even though the river didn’t exist [as a shipping avenue], the interstate didn’t exist, and there was nothing out here. The board did it, with the citizens’ support.”
Six decades later, 42 companies from six nations operate here on 4,000 acres, making everything from American peanut butter (Skippy) to Czechoslovakian pistols (CZ-US). Between 2006 and 2016, resident companies contributed $5 billion to the local economy per a Port-commissioned financial impact study.
“One of the things that’s most fascinating is, last year we did a zip code survey with employers. It was unscientific, but we asked companies to tell us where their people were coming from,” Day said. “We had zip codes from 23 counties, and we have 75 counties in Arkansas. So, a third of the state sent someone to the Port of Little Rock to make a living. That’s pretty impressive. That’s a major economic developer.”
HMS Manufacturing, a Michigan-based producer of houseware products that manufactured overseas, announced it would be moving into a 550,000-square-foot space at the Port, creating 90 new jobs over two years and bringing foreign manufacturing back home to the states in the process.
Janet Sofy, company president, said the facility in Little Rock was large enough for HMS’ expansion of its manufacturing in order to fulfill and exceed its strategic goals. “The ease of doing business with the City of Little Rock and the Port Authority, their willingness to make HMS part of their economic growth strategy and the availability of a talented workforce were driving factors in the decision to do business in Little Rock. Access to rail and other key transportation logistics were also important factors in our decision.”
Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, said the Port is a key implement in the chamber’s economic development toolbox.
“The only way you can win in economic development is to have product to sell. If we didn’t have any sites or land available, then it wasn’t going to work for any of us,” he said. “We’re focusing now on trying to create new sites and infrastructure that may not come online for 18 to 24 months, and some of it doesn’t come online for several years. But, if you’re not always working on that, then you don’t have anything to sell, and if you don’t have anything to sell, you can’t win these projects.”
The Port entered a new chapter in July when it was announced that online retailing giant Amazon.com was constructing an 826,000-square-foot facility on 80 acres. That project not only brings with it 1,000 jobs but is also expected to be a bell cow for similar companies and related suppliers. Day said working with Amazon, as with any new company, is a study in process and site improvement.
“Shovel-ready sites need adequate infrastructure,” he said. “Are the roads usable, is there adequate water, adequate sewer capacity, adequate power? We talk about that a lot, and we work with our partners at the utility companies and internet providers to make sure that we can meet tenants’ needs.
“We realized our road infrastructure was not adequate, as [Amazon and CZ-US] are going to add thousands of vehicle trips a day. As a result, a couple weeks ago, we announced $11 million worth of road improvements. That came from the city, the county, the state and federal grants.
“Not often do we have a ‘build it and they will come’ opportunity. It’s more like ‘you get here, we’ll get it built.’ You generally can’t do that in New York City or California; it’s not that they don’t want to, they’re just too big. We still have that small-town, let’s-get-it-done attitude.”
Of course, being able to wield incentives or get the mayor or the governor on the phone to help seal a deal and cut red tape is not something many in the private sector can do. All positive results notwithstanding, the Port holds advantages over other suitors causing some in the private sector cry foul over unfair advantage.
“That’s a great philosophical conversation that we could talk about for hours,” Day said. “It is unfair. I do believe it is unfair, at times, that public entities have access to tax credits, grants and funding that private entities don’t. You could make the argument, and some do make the argument, that it is unfair.
“This is how I would respond to that: Private development could not have built the interstate system; it had to have public support. But by building the interstate system with tax dollars and public support, it created all these billions of dollars of opportunities — hotels, restaurants and shopping centers — along this brand-new corridor that’s now 50 years old.
“I would argue that, by having public ports like Fort Smith, Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Muskogee and Tulsa, it allows us to make sure the river’s maintained, make sure the river’s built and create opportunity. And there’s probably another 15 to 20 private ports and terminals on the river that would not exist if public ports weren’t in place.
“If I was a private operator, I would definitely, say, ‘Gosh, it sure seems unfair that the public ports have access to resources, policies and rules that I don’t.’ As a public operator, I would say that that is true, to some extent. But, when we’re successful, it creates new opportunities for the private investment to come in. Not everyone will agree with that, but that’s the argument that I make.”
One thing for certain, the Port is becoming a victim of its own success with fewer and fewer building sites available for development. And, in seeking additional parcels, Day has discovered the Port’s reputation for prosperity precedes it as asking prices have driven sharply upward. Still, there are plenty of things to look forward to, like the 8,000 jobs that will reside on Port land once the current crop of new tenants settles in.
“We have major investment, we are hiring, and there are not many communities that can say that right now,” Day said. “It’s a community effort. It takes the Port board, it takes the mayor, it takes the chamber, it takes the governor, it takes people who want to come out here and work, and we’re all in this together.
“I won’t be here in 50 years, but it would be great if you could see what it looks like. I think in 50 years, we might be 10,000 acres in size and maybe 25,000 people working here. The Port’s in really good shape, and we’re very lucky to have it.”