We were hungry when we arrived in Camden on a hot summer Saturday. My wife, son, and I had decided to spend the day driving in southern Arkansas, and I wanted them to have lunch at the oldest operating restaurant in the state, the White House.
As I walked in, I noticed a man I thought was a customer sitting in a booth, watching the University of Arkansas Razorback baseball team play after the season on a TV screen above the bar. As we started to sit down, he spoke up.
“We’re not open until tonight,” he said. “I wish we were, but I can’t find anyone who wants to work.”
I was disappointed, but Camden has a surprisingly high number of independent restaurants for a town of less than 11,000 people. We walked up the street and had lunch at What’s Cookin’ on Adams Street. After lunch, we walked around the old city center. I noticed signs of life that I hadn’t seen on previous visits: businesses are opening, murals are being painted, work is being done on the sidewalks.
“There’s something going on here,” I said.
What is happening was described for a national audience last month in a long story by Bryan Bender, senior national correspondent for Politico. It’s a boom in the defense sector, which already employs nearly 3,000 people in an area once known for its massive International Paper Co.
“Nestled in the remote backwoods of southern Arkansas, some of the nation’s busiest weapons factories are gearing up for historic levels of defense spending and replenishing stockpiles of artillery, large-caliber ammunition , rockets, missiles and propulsion systems that were siphoned off to help Ukraine level the playing field against Russia,” Bender wrote. “The widely circulated images of burnt-out Russian military vehicles littering the roads are the result of Javelin anti-tank missiles.
“A major Ukrainian counter-offensive now underway has been fueled by access to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which is helping to turn the tide against Russian forces. And pressure is mounting to maintain lines in production to fuel what has become a conflict that could drag on for several more months before it is over Demand for ammunition in Ukraine has been so high that it has depleted stocks in the United States and Europe Thousands of missiles and artillery shells have already been diverted from armories on both sides of the Atlantic and now there is a scramble to replenish them.”
The Camden area is well placed to be one of the main beneficiaries of this stampede. The problem is the same as at the White House restaurant: a lack of workers.
“Where do we find the technical workers, the engineers who are willing to move to southern Arkansas and work in the industry?” Mike Preston, Secretary of Commerce, asked in an interview with Politico. “We have more people working right now than we have had at any time in our state’s history. . . . There are 70,000 jobs open in our state.”
John Schaffitzel, chairman of Highland Industrial Park where the defense factories are located, told Bender: “That’s my concern. The power is there. How do I get help and programs and put grants in the right place to provide a sense of quality of life for these workers? How do you create quality of life…to attract skilled workers and engineers?”
The answer is a regional approach. Economic developers in Camden, El Dorado and Magnolia once referred to their area as the Golden Triangle. Suddenly, things are falling into place that could mark the start of a new golden era for the Golden Triangle. While it won’t match the oil boom of the 1920s, the pieces are falling into place.
First, there is the growth of the defense industry. Then there is the potential for lithium mining for electric vehicle batteries. Every day in southern Arkansas, thousands of barrels of lithium-containing brine are discarded by chemical companies and reinfused into the ground. Standard Lithium and Lanxess Corp. have reached an agreement to accelerate the state’s first commercial lithium project at a Lanxess facility in El Dorado.
The Biden administration has identified the need to establish a secure supply chain for battery materials. The potential is there for the Golden Triangle to play a key role in the country’s energy and defense strategies. Current lithium production is mainly located in Australia and South America. It is then shipped to Asia to be processed into battery materials.
“A strong domestic supply of materials like lithium is essential for economic security,” Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak told an interviewer last year. “Investments are being made by the largest automakers as they prepare to retool and roll out electric vehicle offerings. These investments, and the millions of jobs they entail, require security of supply. raw materials. The shortage of semiconductors highlights the importance of diversifying and localizing supply chains.”
If there is an economic boom, where will the workers be found? How are you going to convince them to live in southern Arkansas? Fortunately, now is the time for the Golden Triangle. Several elements combine to improve the quality of life in this region, which facilitates the attraction of residents.
The first is the development of the Murphy Arts District by business and civic leaders in El Dorado. MAD’s concerts and other events draw visitors from southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana and eastern Texas. These same executives have worked together to ensure that El Dorado also has one of the best golf courses in the state (Mystic Creek) and one of its best boutique hotels (The Haywood).
Now recognized as having the most charming downtown of any city of its size in the country, El Dorado can offer the amenities demanded by talented young workers.
A second factor that will help attract talent is the incredible growth of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia at a time when many colleges and universities across the country are struggling. SAU announced last month that it had a record number of registrations of 5,094, a 15% increase over the previous year. Retention rates are also on the rise.
There are 3,148 undergraduate students this semester with a 10% increase in freshman class size. Transfer student enrollment increased by 54%. Add to that a 53% increase in graduate enrollment.
Programs contributing to the increase in enrollment include a Master of Arts in Education, Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Clinical Counseling and Mental Health, Master of Science in Computer Science, Master of Public Administration, and a PhD in Rural and Diverse Education Leadership. .
Back at Highland Industrial Park, Bender writes, “The sprawling industrial hub is now a nerve center for some of the nation’s largest military contractors, as well as some of their weapons which have slowed down and in some cases even repelled the Russian assault. . Raytheon Technologies builds components for Tomahawk and Standard missiles for the Navy. Lockheed Martin assembles the Army’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and Theater High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile systems, as well as the ATACMS, MLRS and HIMARS, which recently made headlines in Ukraine for its ability to strike behind Russian lines and put invading forces on the defensive.
“General Dynamics is building Hydra 70 air-to-surface rockets and the warheads for a pair of weapons that have almost become household names: the Javelins and the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne, which opened a new 51,000 square-foot in early August supplies other companies with rocket engines and other parts, and they’re all backed by smaller aerospace and defense suppliers.
In the words of Erik Perrin of General Dynamics: “Many of the front-line weapons systems that we watch on CNN come so carefully out of Camden in one form or another.”
Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.