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Little Rock chamber puts 2023 focus on port plan

Site mapped out to lure auto plant by Andrew Moreau | December 9, 2022 at 9:52 a.m.
FILE - A sign outside the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau is shown in this 2019 file photo.


Economic developments in Central Arkansas this year that included 1,657 new jobs and capital investments of $447.7 million were highlighted Thursday during the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce's 2022 annual meeting.

Next year, efforts will ramp up to develop an area at the Port of Little Rock in hopes of attracting an auto manufacturer, chamber officials said.

The chamber, which supports Little Rock and surrounding metro areas, was involved in efforts that led to expansions and new business development across multiple industries such as advanced manufacturing, distribution and logistics, corporate operations, health care and cybersecurity, officials said.

"2022 was a robust year for the chamber," Jim Cargill, chamber chairman this year, said leading off Thursday's economic development recap.

Over the year, $66.3 million in new payroll was added to the area with expansions by W&W-AFCO Steel, Arkana Labs, Fiocchi, Go Textbooks, Sequretek and Tractor Supply Co.

Business efforts are underway for next year and Cargill outlined a big target: develop a "megasite" to land a major manufacturing plant. "As we enter 2023, we're not slowing down," he said.

The location would be about 1,000 acres in the Port of Little Rock with access to river, road, rail and air transportation to ship and receive products.

Top executives from AFCO, which announced this year it would add another facility in Little Rock at the port, were keynote speakers at Thursday's event, which drew business leaders from across the region to the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. AFCO is planning to add 115 jobs as it expands production in the former LM Wind Power complex.

The expansion is an $18.7 million investment for the company, founded 113 years ago in Little Rock. AFCO has already added 44 employees through the expansion as, like other employers across the nation, it battles labor-force shortages.

"That's tremendous considering the challenges we've had" finding workers, said Grady Harvell, president and chief operating officer of AFCO. Harvell was joined onstage for a discussion about the company by Rick Cooper, chairman and chief executive officer.

Expansion in Little Rock will increase production capacity for steel infrastructure for bridges and buildings being put up across the nation, AFCO officials said, adding the company has provided steel for noted regional projects like the north and south end zone expansions of Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, stadiums for the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers and the infrastructure to support the 30 Crossing transportation project in Little Rock.

"This expansion at the port allows us to expand both our structural and our bridge capacity," Harvell added. "It gives us flexibility in our product line."

To prepare for the Little Rock project that is remapping Interstate-30 through downtown, Harvell said the company had inventory available for coming months. When the Interstate-40 bridge connecting West Memphis and Memphis failed in May, AFCO quickly supplied steel to shave time off the closure, Harvell said.

AFCO employs more than 400 workers at its four other locations in Arkansas.

At Thursday's meeting, the chamber announced that Rajesh Chokhani, chairman of Bond.AI, would serve as chairman in 2023.


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