Since the land was first discovered, the fertile soil of the Arkansas Delta has produced crops that feed and clothe the world. Rice, soybeans, wheat and cotton are staple commodities grown in abundance by generations of family farmers.
One day, however, not so long ago, John Correnti, a longtime leader in America’s steel industry and then CEO of Big River Steel, looked out over the northern tip of the Arkansas Delta and declared it to be “steel mill heaven.” He believed Arkansas could become one of the top steel producing areas in America, and he was right.
“It’s extraordinary to see the cotton fields of Arkansas converted into steel producing companies that really impact the world,” said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
When you see that Mississippi County, Arkansas, became the fourth-largest primary steel-producing county in America seemingly overnight it raises the question, “how?”
“It actually started more than 30 years ago when Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas,” said David Stickler, CEO of Big River Steel. “A little company called Nucor Corporation decided they wanted to build a steel mill on the Mississippi River. Arkansas was a good home for that because they had the river system, the rail system, the highway system and a reliable electrical grid. What they had then, they have today only in spades.”
Today, Nucor Corporation operates two facilities: Nucor Steel in Blytheville and Nucor Yamato in Armorel, each located in the northeast part of the county. Each manufactures automotive-grade steel products. In 2016, Nucor Steel announced a $230 million expansion project that, within two years, will greatly enhance production capability for the demanding automobile industry and add 100 employees to the payroll. In total, more than 1,000 people are employed between the two plants.
The steel industry in Mississippi County received another boost in late 2016 when Correnti’s vision became a reality and Big River Steel was open for business downstream in Osceola.
The company invested $1.3 billion to build the world’s first steel-production facility that is LEED-certified, which is a rating system designed to evaluate environmental performance of a building and to encourage sustainability. Additionally, the Big River plant is considered a model for the utilization of artificial intelligence.
“We’ve embraced artificial intelligence just like the autonomous cars they drive around,” said Stickler. “The more those cars are driven, the more they learn. Same with our mill here: the more it operates, the more it learns.”
The value of the technology once fully utilized, Stickler says, is that production errors will be detected with great speed and corrected almost immediately, thereby, decreasing potential costly plant downtime.
“A year from now, this plant will be a lot smarter. In two years, it will be even smarter, and by then we’ll be able to truly say that we are the world’s first smart mill. Once we do that, sophisticated and technologically advanced steel consumers will want to locate in close proximity to us,” Stickler commented.
Governor Hutchinson and others certainly hope that’s the case.
“We have world-class steel production, recycled steel, here in Arkansas which we hope leads to automobile and rail car manufacturers to locate here,” Gov. Hutchinson says.
Location was the other key to the Arkansas steel industry’s success, due to the transportation and infrastructure already in place in conjunction with being centrally located. In fact, Mike Preston, executive director of Arkansas Economic Development Commission, says it is one of Arkansas’ main selling points for steel producers.
“Proximity to the Mississippi River was critical to both Nucor and Big River,” said Preston. “Barges can deliver raw materials that are melted down to make steel and then they can put the product they make on another barge to ship up or down the Mississippi River.”
Big River Steel also built 14 miles of rail line to connect to major rail systems that provide access all over the country. That, coupled with a north-to-south interstate system in Interstate 55 and an east-to-west corridor in Interstate 40, makes northeast Arkansas an ideal place for a steel mill.
Preston says Arkansas being a right-to-work state with an eager workforce is also a compelling attraction for industry.
“The workforce we have here in Arkansas is made up of hard-working and dedicated people,” he said. “Mr. Correnti once said that he’ll take someone off the farm and put them in a steel mill because they have the work ethic, and they’ll roll up their sleeves and do it better and faster than anyone else.”
Gov. Hutchinson also praised Arkansas’ technical colleges for accepting the challenge to prepare workers to be successful in today’s high-tech steel industry.
“Our two-year colleges have partnered with the steel industry to tailor-make the training that fits industry needs,” said Gov. Hutchinson.
Arkansas Northeastern College conducts all pre-employment and post-employment training for Big River Steel.
“We sent four of our full-time instructors to Germany to learn the exact process for Big River Steel so that we could customize our training,” said Dr. James Shemwell, president of Arkansas Northeastern College. “We’re here to help solve training problems for industry, and if we don’t have the resources, we’ll go find them.”
The same holds true across the state in Van Buren, Arkansas, where Bekaert Steel operates a plant that makes steel wiring products for the agricultural, transportation and construction industries.
“We have 395 employees here in Van Buren,” says Melissa Turner, plant manager. “The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith has been a longtime workforce development partner of ours for robotics. They teach our people programming techniques, which leads to an advanced degree in technology.”
Indeed, the steel industry is alive and vibrant throughout all of Arkansas. But John Correnti’s dream of “steel mill heaven” in Mississippi County has, perhaps, even exceeded his bold vision.
AEDC’s Preston believes we’re just beginning.
“Arkansas is hot right now in steel. We’re sending a message to the world that we are not only producing a lot of steel but it’s technologically advanced steel that is in great demand,” Preston boasted. “We are open for business.”