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It’s not hard to find the state’s primary defense contract spending sites: They’re clustered in and around the Highland Industrial Park northeast of Camden.

Calhoun and Ouachita counties, which border each other, benefited from $332.3 million in defense contracts in fiscal 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment.

The rest of the state — the other 73 counties — had a combined total of $300.1 million, officials said.

The Pentagon office published a 130-page report in early March titled Defense Spending By State: Fiscal Year 2017, which lists the top defense contract locations in each state.

The figures, which were updated Friday because of questions raised by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, show Arkansas benefiting from $632.4 million in “defense contract spending.” Of that, $250.4 million was attributed to work in Ouachita County, with another $81.9 million linked to Calhoun County.

The report also shows 18,319 defense personnel in the state, a figure that includes members of National Guard and Reserve units as well as some civilians. Payroll, in 2017 was $700.7 million, it stated.

A majority of the personnel — 10,372 — were in Pulaski County. Sebastian (1,750), Jefferson (875), Benton (701), Craighead (290), Washington (275), Faulkner

(249) and Garland (236) counties followed.

Overall, military spending in the state surpassed $1.3 billion, accounting for 1.1 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product — a measure of the goods and services produced each year.

Officials in southern Arkansas say the defense contract spending figures for 2017 are a reflection of the defense contractors’ mailing addresses, not their primary work sites.

Most of the companies get their mail from the Camden post office in Ouachita County, population 23,868.

But the manufacturing takes place just over the county line in Calhoun County, population 5,247.

Regardless of which county gets official credit, the park is a source of pride and a top employer, local leaders say.

“Besides the timber industry, the defense industry is probably the most important industrial part of our county,” said Ouachita County Judge Robbie McAdoo.

“They are a very, very important part of our community,” said Beth Osteen, executive director of the Camden Area Chamber of Commerce. “If every single company up and left, it would be detrimental, not only to Ouachita and Calhoun counties but to the state of Arkansas.”

Calhoun County Judge Floyd Nutt did not respond to messages left with his office staff on Friday and Monday.

The 2017 figures weren’t a fluke.

In fiscal 2016, the two counties had combined defense contracts totaling $318.7 million, according to the Department of Defense — $241.7 million assigned to Calhoun County and $77 million attributed to Ouachita County.

Roughly 3,000 people work at the industrial park, Osteen said. And more work is on the horizon.

In August, Aerojet Rocket-dyne announced that it would be adding 140 new jobs over a three-year span, enabling it to increase the number of solid rocket motors it produces there.

Given President Donald Trump’s budget priorities, military contracting has become a growth industry. Nationally, defense spending climbed from $700 billion in fiscal 2018 to $716 billion in fiscal 2019; Trump is requesting $750 billion for fiscal 2020.

Other major defense contractors also have operations in the Camden area, including General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Ester-line Defense Group.

“We really sit in the heart of the defense industry for Arkansas,” said Southern Arkansas University Tech Chancellor Jason Morrison.

His school is located in the industrial park and offers extensive educational and workforce training opportunities.

“We’re kind of unique as an institution,” he said. “We actually sit in the middle of all these industries. Some days, you can hear rocket motors being tested.”

The area’s military ties date to at least the 1940s. The Camden Army Air Field, which opened in 1942, was a training site for aspiring pilots. It operated for nearly two years.

About the time it closed, the U.S. Navy announced plans for an ordnance depot. Construction workers flocked to Camden, drawn by wages of 60 cents an hour, coupled with daily food and lodging costs of $1.75.

The Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot, which encompassed nearly 70,000 acres at its prime, focused on “the loading, assembly and storage of ordnance rockets,” according to a 1952 Arkansas Democrat article.

In the years following the Korean War, the facility was no longer deemed necessary. The property was declared surplus in 1959 and eventually sold in 1961.

International Paper Co. bought most of the land. Houston-based Brown Engineering Corp. was the other major purchaser. Instead of stripping away the infrastructure, they opted to open an industrial park.

The site, which attracted defense contractors early on, has been a magnet for jobs and economic development for more than half a century.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is more familiar than most with the materiel southern Arkansas produces.

The Dardanelle native, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the work is important.

“Arkansas not only sends its sons and daughters to serve in the U.S. military but its workers also build the weapons our servicemembers rely on to keep us safe,” he said in a written statement.

The Camden area produces “world-class munitions and advanced vehicles that deter and dominate our enemies on the battlefield,” he said, adding, “Every Arkansan can be proud of the role our state plays in forging the arsenal of democracy.”

The Pentagon office published a 130-page report in early March titled Defense Spending By State: Fiscal Year 2017, which lists the top defense contract locations in each state.


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