A new multimillion-dollar rice mill at the Port of Pine Bluff will initially employ 25 and further expansions are planned, Southwind Milling Co. LLC announced Monday.
Construction will begin at the end of June at 4215 Emmett Sanders Road, which is the site of the former Century Tube Corp. facility. Construction project manger Ron Craig said they expect to be milling rice by the first of February 2015.
The announcement was welcome news to Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth.
“Jobs are the No. 1 item which our community is in desperate need of,” Hollingsworth said. “This is a step in the right direction toward aiding the city in creating jobs.”
The mayor said the city will help support the project’s development, issuing the needed permits, helping with ordinances for roads in the milling area and in any other way possible.
Craig said the demolition of the former Century Tube building is complete, and they are now finishing the structural drawing for the facility.
“If you drive through the port area now, it looks like a ghost town,” Craig said. “There’s just a bunch of empty buildings. We will bring a viable, active business to the port.”
As of right now, area farmers must sell their crops to other markets in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, Craig said, but when the mill is complete they’ll be able to take their crops to Pine Bluff, keeping the economic benefit local.
Craig said various levels of miller jobs, lab technicians, packagers, shippers, receivers and conveyor and dryer operators will be needed to work the rice mill when it opens.
“Southwind Milling also plans to expand again at the port in the near future, doubling the capacity of this mill and building a rice flourmill,” according to the announcement. “The construction of a port dock within its property is also included in the expansion plan in order to take advantage of direct barge loading capabilities and inland waterways transportation.”
Both the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission are supporting the Southwind project financially.
“Along with the AEDC, we’ve issued $10 million in funding for equipment and building the facility,” said Brad Henry, vice president of development and finance at the ADF&A.
Henry said the ADFA has guaranteed a loan of $5 million, and the AEDC has done the same with the expectation that Southwind will produce economically and pay them back.
Derrick Rose, a public information officer with the ADF&A, said an additional $1 million has been contributed to the project through the State Small Business Credit Initiative, a federal program that the ADF&A is administers, issuing the federal dollars to Arkansas-based companies.
AEDC spokesman Scott Hardin also said Southwind will receive an income tax credit equal to 4 percent of total payroll, a sales tax refund on construction costs and training assistance from AEDC.
The ADF&A and the AEDC have been working with Southwind for about eight months, but the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County has assisted the company in finding a location for their mill since May 2013.
“We keep up with all the sites and facilities in Jefferson County, and when a prospect calls and gives their criteria for what they’re looking for, we try to match their needs,” said Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Alliance. “We were able to do exactly that with the Pine Bluff Port and Southwind Milling.”
Nisbett said the 25 jobs expected to be created initially only take into account direct jobs. She said double or triple that amount could be produced in indirect jobs, such as the service industry and suppliers.
“Southwind will create activity in the port area that we lost when Century Tube shut down,” Nisbett said. “We’re glad to see them here and look forward to seeing the new facility and the positivity it will bring to Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.”
The mill will be responsible for taking the rice in patty form from the field, cleaning it and drying it out three times to achieve the correct moisture content, Craig said.
Craig said after the broken and whole rice is separated the broken rice can be used for rice flower, the hull can be used for insulation and fiber board and the whole rice is put into packaging and sent to distributors to be delivered to stores for sale to the public.
“We’re excited to be in Pine Bluff,” Craig said. “We’re looking forward to being out there, getting to work and making this thing happen.”
Southwind is part of the Optimum Group, which has been farming in the Mississippi Delta since 2010. It has an operations office on one of its farms in Jefferson County but plans to move it closer to the rice mill site, according to the release.
— Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon contributed to this report