White Hall, the home of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, celebrated Defense Industry Day on Wednesday with a visit from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
“Arkansas is very proud of the history of the Pine Bluff Arsenal,” said Hutchinson, who was the keynote speaker at the event, which was held at the White Hall Community Center.
According to a news release, the objective of the event was to promote the Arsenal’s military value and showcase Arkansas’ role in national defense.
White Hall Mayor Noel Foster said the recognition is “an excellent networking opportunity for large and small businesses that are interested in partnering with the Pine Bluff Arsenal and establishing a presence in our community.”
The Pine Bluff Arsenal was established on Nov. 2, 1941, eight miles northeast of Pine Bluff. Built on 14,944 acres and named the Chemical Warfare Arsenal (changed to Pine Bluff Arsenal in 1942), the facility produced millions of magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions for World War II and experimented with microbiological pathogens for potential germ warfare.
During the war years, the arsenal employed 10,000 civilians and was an operational base to 350 military personnel. It long served as a repository for World War II stockpiles of aging chemical warfare agents, which have since been properly disposed of, and now includes hundreds of operational and production facilities, primarily for white and red phosphorus munitions and smoke munitions.
“The history of the arsenal has always been an important part of our national security, with Pine Bluff being a key player,” Hutchinson said. “We are proud of that history, we are proud of that contribution, and we are proud of its present position as the center of excellence for biodefense, chemical defense, and production.”
Hutchinson went on to say that the future of the arsenal should be broader with a strong partnership with industry in an environment that is conducive to chem-bio defense and smoking munitions.
“The private sector investment has to be a part of it (PB Arsenal) for the future and the opportunities that it presents,” Hutchinson said.
During his speech, Hutchinson provided reasons why he believes that Arkansas should be at the top of the list for growth opportunities in industry.
“I like where we are in this state, but we have a military affairs committee,” Hutchinson said. “The committee is the first statewide initiative that we have developed to support our military installations.”
The statewide committee supports the efforts of the Little Rock Air Force Base, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Fort Chaffee Army Base in Fort Smith and Camp Robinson in Little Rock.
He explained that they first invested grant money to show and demonstrate the economic benefits of Arkansas’ military escalation, while also having money available for grants to support local leaders, making sure that the military escalation is in the strongest position for the future.
“It demonstrates our support for Pine Bluff Arsenal, not just at a local level, but at a state level as well,” Hutchinson said.
Second, he said that Arkansas is a military-friendly state, having a veteran’s hospital that treats people with respect and dignity.
“We value military leadership, we value military experience, and we recognize that military experience is not just good for the military, it’s also good for the private sector as well, with leadership and business capacities being transferable,” the governor said.
Hutchinson added that Arkansas wants to recruit military retirees to the state and give them an exemption from the state income tax, which he feels is too high and wishes to reduce it.
“They will come here, they will set up a new business or career, leading to an economic boom for our state,” he said.
Third, Hutchinson said that the defense industry is a growing part of the economic mix in Arkansas, where agriculture is currently the leading industry and tourism being second.
“We produce over 50 percent of all rice produced in the United States of America, and we have it all when it comes to tourism,” he said.
He went on to say that manufacturing is a growing part of the economy in Arkansas. The state has manufactured everything from furniture to missiles.
“We are in the top tier of states for new jobs created by foreign direct investments,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve been to China, Japan, Europe, and Cuba to market the state of Arkansas, which has led to a major Chinese industry bringing their manufacturer back to the United States.”
The fourth reason Hutchinson mentioned is the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education.
“STEM education is critical to all that we are trying to accomplish in the defense industry,” he said.
Hutchinson said that when he became governor, he promised to put computer coding in every high school in Arkansas.
As a result of that initiative, coding is mandated to be offered in every high school with it being integrated into the curriculum for K-8th grades, and $2.5 million has been spent each year training teachers on computer science education, which has led to over 6,000 students in Arkansas now taking computer coding classes.
As a result, Arkansas is recognized as leading the nation in computer science education.
Lastly, Hutchinson explained that Arkansas has a favorable business climate.
“Last year we reached the lowest unemployment level in the history of Arkansas,” he said.
He said that the state has reduced regulation and has partnered with industries, and also provides incentives while competing with other states to attract business.
Hutchinson ended by saying, “I’m so optimistic about where we are in this state.”