ByStephen P. Greene
For nearly 50 years, residents of Blytheville, Ark., proudly supported the Air Force base in their town. Eaker Air Force Base was home to a group of Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers and more than 3,000 military personnel before closing in 1992. At that time, Blytheville was faced with the same challenge that small towns throughout the United States encounter when their military bases are shuttered: redefining its economic identity. The efforts of Blytheville and surrounding Mississippi County communities to recover is a three-part story spread over three different areas of this northeast Arkansas region:
The closing of Eaker Air Force Base was anything but a shock to the community. Rumors had been circulating for years. Even before the official closing, the Blytheville-Gosnell Regional Airport Authority had approved a strategic re-use plan for the 3,771-acre base. Having a plan in place would later make it easier for the airport authority to receive the land from the federal government. More than 30 public meetings were held during the creation of the re-use plan to encourage the suggestions and recommendations of area residents.
"When a military installation closes in a small town, the assumption is that there is going to be gloom and doom and darkness forever after," says Sam Scruggs, executive director of the Mississippi County Economic Opportunity Commission. "But in many cases, it causes local community residents to begin talking and strategizing about how to be more aggressive to improve the future."
The No. 1 priority that emanated from the plan was the creation of new jobs at the site. Today, 48 businesses and more than 700 employees are located at the Aeroplex, but many of the 200 buildings and 928 housing units still sit vacant. Airport authority marketing attempts to attract companies have included direct mail, trade shows and tours. Companies with aviation needs are a natural fit. One such company is Leading Edge Aviation Services.
With 105 workers, Leading Edge is the largest employer at the Aeroplex. The company strips and repaints commercial airplanes. In 1997, Leading Edge moved its operation from Greenville, Miss., to Blytheville in part because of the Aeroplex's runway—the longest in the state and longer than any runway at Memphis International Airport, one hour south.
"We liked the layout of the base," says Paul Volz, general manager at Leading Edge. "The infrastructure was there, and the lease agreements were very appealing."
Donnie Davidson, facilities manager at the airport authority, says lease rates have been designed to reward businesses that keep growing; for example, companies receive incremental price breaks when they hire additional employees. Besides Leading Edge, companies located at the Aeroplex include: Federal Express' driver training school, the YMCA and Floral Distributors Inc.
A void was left in Mississippi County's economy after the Air Force base closed. In 1987, the military accounted for 15.2 percent of personal earnings, the largest of any industry in the county. At that time, durable goods manufacturing accounted for only 14.5 percent of earnings. In 1997, however, durable goods manufacturing leaped to 34.4 percent of earnings—a dramatic increase that can be explained with one word: steel.
Nucor Corp., the nation's second-largest steel maker, operates two steel recycling mills along the Mississippi River. Combined, Nucor-Yamato (which produces I-beams and is 49 percent Japanese-owned) and Nucor Steel (which produces sheet steel) employ more than 1,200 people and manufacture 5 million tons of steel annually.
The presence of the two steel mills, as well as the more than 30 steel suppliers and customers in town that support them, has helped to mitigate the effects of the Air Force base closure. Some people around Blytheville use the word luck to describe Nucor's decision to open the Nucor Steel mill at almost the same time the base closing was announced.
"Oh yes, we were lucky," says Steve Bell, president of Farmers Bank. "Before the base closed, we knew Nucor was looking to open a second mill here. Our transportation advantages—with the river, the interstate and the Burlington-Northern rail line right here—made us kind of natural for Nucor to open a second mill. It couldn't have happened at a better time."
Despite the strong manufacturing base in the Blytheville area, recent setbacks have occurred. Two manufacturing companies not related to steel—Magna Tech and Acco—closed their plants in the Blytheville Industrial Park in 1998. Each company employed about 400 workers. Overall, Mississippi County's unemployment rate of 11.1 percent far exceeds the state's 4.4 percent rate.
Striking steel archways (donated to the city by Nucor) welcome visitors to Blytheville's shopping and business district along Main Street. Although merchants currently occupy 95 percent of the ground floor level along the street, it remains to be seen how the April opening of a 187,000 square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter just off I-55 will affect downtown businesses. Will shoppers who patronize Main Street's smaller stores decide to spend their money under one large roof?
Jerry Sims, president of First National Bank, says that although Wal-Mart can adversely affect sales of downtown retailers, Blytheville has "a pretty good mix of stores that have items that people can't get at Wal-Mart. But if it's at Wal-Mart, people are going to go to Wal-Mart. That's just the way it is."
A non-Supercenter Wal-Mart was located in Blytheville for 25 years before the opening of the Supercenter, which employs slightly more than 400 people.
"Ideally, shoppers who come in from different parts of the region to go to Wal-Mart will also head downtown to shop," says Stefanie Barnes, executive director of Main Street Blytheville, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting downtown's image and business interests.
That Blytheville and the rest of Mississippi County appear to have successfully weathered the closing of Eaker Air Force is not too surprising, according to a 1996 report published by the Rand Corp. The report, which was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, studied the economic impact from base closings in three California towns.
The study concluded that, although all three communities suffered an economic lag following the 1988 base closings, the ultimate effects were "not catastrophic" and "not nearly as severe as forecasted." Why? Because military personnel generally spend their money on the base, rather than in the surrounding town.
Although there is no doubting that some degree of economic lag occurs in any town that experiences a base closing, the study maintained that a community can actually benefit when a base closes because civilian employees and retired military personnel who typically live off-base, but spend a good portion of their income on the base, redirect their dollars toward grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals in town. In Blytheville's case, more than 3,000 military personnel and dependents were living off-base during Eaker's peak in 1989, making for a significant loss of spending on community services after these people left.
True to the study's conclusions, Blytheville did not collapse upon itself when its Air Force base closed. The efforts of the airport authority to lure new businesses to town, coupled with the steel industry's growth, have provided reason for optimism in Blytheville. But as the high unemployment rate indicates, the area still has some work to do.
|Per Capita Personal Income||$18,605|
|Top Five Employers|
|Maverick Tube L.P. Energy Works||
|Milwaukee Electric Tool corp.||