A media leak has brought to light a project that would create 350 jobs and put Clark County on the map for pulpwood production — if Clark County is the location chosen for the prospect's site.
Arkansas Business on Monday reported that a Chinese wood pulp mill company called Sun Paper "plans to invest about $1 billion in building a plant" in either Camden or Arkadelphia.
One asset Camden has to offer over Arkadelphia is its readily available rail access; on the other hand, Arkadelphia and Gum Springs (there is still no word on exactly where such a plant would be built) have access to Interstate 30. Clark County also has millions of dollars in incentives money through the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County.
Sun Paper, or more specifically Shandong Sun Paper Industry, is a 30-year-old company that produces about 3.5 million tons of paper and board products annually, according to the article. The new paper mill would produce paper pulp for exportation to China.
The article predicts an announcement to be made by the company in one of the two cities "in the next few weeks."
But those in the know locally aren't saying much about the project, which comes on the heels of Gov. Mike Beebe's announcement of a $1 billion steel mill in Osceola. The Arkansas Business article states that Beebe has "hinted" at the idea of the paper pulp mill before, and that he "spoke of two strong business possibilities, including one related to the timber industry" after a trip to China last year.
What is known is that officials with the EDCCC have for several months been talking about "Project X" and have been working to secure a transloading facility in the Clark County Industrial Park for use by existing and prospective industries.
Allen Morgan, an EDCCC member and co-owner of the Arkadelphia-based timber company Hunter-Wasson, Inc., declined to comment on whether there has been local discussion with Sun Paper, but did shed light on why southern Arkansas would be an ideal location for a paper plant.
"I can't talk about projects that may or may not be … especially for a city as close as Camden because we wouldn't want them to know what our offer has been," Morgan said. "But as a member of the timber industry in Arkansas, I can say that in the last 30 years there have been 1 million acres of commercial timberland added in the state."
Morgan explained that, prior to the economic recession, Arkansas timber companies were growing more timber than they were harvesting. "Clark County lost a huge proportion of the mills that bought our landowners' timber, and as a result of that … we're growing in excess of what we now cut — about 6 million tons per year — so we would easily provide enough raw materials for one large plant or several smaller plants."
Page 2 of 3 - Morgan also noted that Arkansas counties with high per capita incomes in the state have a paper mill; Ashdown in Little River County ($15,899) has Domtar, while Crossett in Ashley County ($15,702) has Georgia-Pacific. Other notables include Morrilton in Conway County ($16,056) and Russellville in Pope County ($15,918).
Clark County's per capita income is $14,533, and the per capita income for Ouachita County, which was once home to International Paper, is $15,118.
"If we were to get a facility of this kind, it would be huge for Clark County," Morgan added. But he still wouldn't say whether the EDCCC has made Sun Paper — or any prospective industry, for that matter — any offers in terms of incentives.
Asked if he anticipates a big announcement to be made in the coming weeks, he said, "I sure hope so."
Like Morgan, other officials are keeping their lips sealed about the project.
State Rep. Richard Womack (R-Arkadelphia) said he knows "precious little" about the project. "I'm not privy to any information anybody else is," Womack said in a telephone interview from the state Capitol. The lawmaker said he was told a few weeks ago that the company had given a 60-day timeframe (that time span, he added, has since passed) to decide whether to locate in Camden or Arkadelphia.
"My understanding is that it's 50/50. … Either way we should get a [financial] bump from it" because of Clark County's timber industry, Womack said.
Womack said he got his information about the prospective plant from Arkadelphia Alliance officials and that they were "pretty open" about discussion on the topic.
An Alliance official a Siftings reporter spoke to was not as candid.
"We are not going to comment on any project we're working on," said Shawnie Carrier, CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance. Carrier said she had read the Arkansas Business article but did not know where the publication got its information.
Brown Hardman, Clark County budget committee chairman and board member of the Clark County Industrial Council, said the article "does have merit."
Hardman spoke frankly with a reporter, saying the Arkansas Business article neglected to mention that talk of Sun Paper locating in southern Arkansas is premature; all that is being discussed now is feasibility of the idea rather than actually locating, according to Hardman.
"I hope if there's any truth to the rumor that we got [the plant]," Hardman said. "This is not a done deal that it's going either place."
What Arkadelphia has to offer:
Monetary incentive from 1/2-cent sales tax
"Bountiful" surface water supply
Two four-year universities
What Camden has to offer:
A vacated site that once housed International Paper
Page 3 of 3 - "Bountiful" surface water supply
One two-year technical college