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story.lead_photo.caption A sign for the new Simmons plant stands Wednesday along Arkansas 59 near Gentry. The plant is designed to harvest live chickens from around 300 independent family farmers to produce fresh and frozen chicken products, said Donny Epp, Simmons senior director of communications. ( NWA Democrat-Gazette / Ben Goff)

The explosive growth in much of Northwest Arkansas has barely roused the roosters in Decatur and Gentry.

U.S. flags adorn the lampposts on both sides of Main Street in Gentry, population about 3,860. "Gentry. Our Roots Run Deep," reads a sign inside City Hall.

"Gentry has always been a slow-growing town, and I like it like that," said Anita Wise. "It still has a small-town feel. Kids play in the streets, and the police still come around and introduce themselves."

In Decatur, about 6 miles north, railroad tracks hug Arkansas 59 on the west as they cut through the town of roughly 1,800 people. This is the home of the Bulldogs, the high school mascot, a sign informs. Two men sit outside the Gallery Cafe and watch the traffic go slowly by.

But, that's likely to change.

A new, $300 million Simmons Foods poultry production plant will mean more than jobs to the western Benton County area.

The locals express feelings of anticipation and trepidation.

"It's huge. It will cause growth. You know it will," said Gentry resident Mike Murphy. "I wish it would stay the same. I grew up here all my life. When you get to Highfill, [about 8 miles east] it feels like you are back in the country. Growth is coming this way."

Decatur School Superintendent Steven Watkins said he expects his district to grow from the influx of workers at the plant. The district currently has 541 students from kindergarten through high school.

"People will move in, and businesses and shopping will follow," he said. "They follow the people. The plant will be a cornerstone for growth in western Benton County."

Production at the plant began on a small scale the week of Sept. 30, and will steadily increase to reach the first phase of full production in January, according to a company news release.

As cities like Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers along the Interstate 49 corridor become more crowded, smaller cities like Gentry and Decatur could start growing, Gentry Mayor Kevin Johnston said.

"The game is changing, and this has the potential to be a real catalyst,"Johnston said of the Simmons plant.

THE NEW PLANT

The plant sits along Arkansas 59 between Decatur and Gentry on 870 acres. Driving north out of Gentry, the plant appears to the east, beckoning with its newly paved, four-lane entry.

The Siloam Springs-based company announced plans for the plant in October 2017. A dedication ceremony was held in June 2018.

The plant is designed to harvest chickens from about 300 independent family growers to produce fresh and frozen chicken products, Simmons Senior Director of Communications Donny Epp said in July. It will replace the company's processing facility in Decatur, he said.

About 900 employees will transition from the Decatur plant, according to a company news release. The company plans to increase staffing to 1,200 in January with the potential of reaching up to 2,300 by 2022.

On average, employees will earn $16 an hour, with pay ranging from $13 to $25 an hour, he said.

The processing facility will increase the need for live chickens by 28%, which will increase the number of chicken houses, Epp said in July. Most of the farm growth will occur in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

The transition will not affect operations at the Decatur Dry Pet Food facility, feed mill, offices or hatchery on Arkansas 59, according to a Simmons public relations manager Julie Maus.

DEALING WITH GROWTH

Mervin Jebaraj, director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said many employees will likely commute to the plant from a wide area, including other cities in Benton County, Washington County, Oklahoma and perhaps Missouri.

"That's a significant number of jobs," he said. "The jobs are very important. The money they bring in is very important. It adds to the economy and to the employment mix."

Historically, more than 85% of the workforce at the Decatur plant lives within 35 miles of the facility, commuting from surrounding communities like Siloam Springs, Gentry, Springdale, Rogers, Gravette and Jay, Okla., Maus said.

Decatur will provide wastewater service to the plant, Mayor Bob Tharp said. Also, the plant's water usage can be as high as 50 million gallons a month, he said.

Johnston said Simmons will build and set up its own water storage for the plant and has paid for an additional access line to the nearby Benton-Washington County Regional Public Water Authority system.

Decatur and Gentry will need to provide other infrastructure, like affordable housing, to entice commuters to stay or spend money in the two cities, Jebaraj said. A production plant setting is different from an office park where employees can get away for a cup of coffee or go to lunch, he said.

MORE HOUSES

Mark Smithson, Gentry building inspector, said plans for at least eight subdivisions are in the works. The largest one will have 246 homes when finished in the next few years, he said. Some homes already are complete.

Another subdivision will have 117 homes, Smithson said. Paving in that subdivision was done Wednesday.

The city will add at least 600 homes from the planned subdivisions, he said. Most of the homes will be between 1,600 and 1,800 square feet, he said.

Smithson has not seen any plans for apartment complexes, but said two four-plexes are planned, and four buildings with 16 units each recently opened.

Gentry has a 2% city sales tax, which produced $100,127 in October, according to data in City and Town, a publication of the Arkansas Municipal League. The revenue represents August sales.

In Decatur, Kim Wilkins, secretary of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the city hasn't received any plans for new housing subdivisions or retail because of the plant, but that could change in the next few years. Developers have started to look at the city more closely, she said.

Decatur has a 1% city sales tax that produced $23,074 in October, according to Arkansas Municipal League data.

Arkansas 59 was widened earlier this year to include a turning lane in front of the plant.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation website shows daily traffic counts in 2018 of 9,700 to 13,000 vehicles on Arkansas 59 between Gentry and Decatur. The 2018 numbers are the most current.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission estimates as many as 16,000 vehicles traveling a day on some stretches of the highway between the two cities by 2040.

"That plant is significant for that corridor for sure," said Jeff Hawkins, Regional Planning director.

The commission is is working on its long-range plan to 2045, Hawkins said. Western Benton County and the Arkansas 59 corridor could be a good place for growth, he said.

"When you look at long-range planning, where do you put another 500,000 people in the next 25 years?" Hawkins said. "Where will they live? How will they get to work?"

Photo by Ben Goff
Ken and Anita Wise, owners of Wise Twice-But-Nice, pose for a photo Wednesday at the business in downtown Gentry. A new, $300 million Simmons Foods poultry production plant will bring more than jobs to the western Benton County area.

SundayMonday on 11/17/2019

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