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More than 100 business leaders in Little Rock gathered Monday to hear about the opportunities and challenges that will either boost or hinder manufacturing growth in the area. The panel discussion included advanced manufacturing industry officials and the executive director of the Port of Little Rock.

People top each list, with the panelists citing Little Rock residents as the area's biggest selling point and also its greatest challenge.

Rajesh Chokhani, who helped select Little Rock as North American headquarters for Welspun, said the city presents a warm, welcoming presence that is attractive to visiting business leaders.

Bryan Day, executive director of the port, noted that business executives outside the state give Little Rock high marks when they visit for a recruiting trip. "If we can get folks here, we can show them this is a place they want to call home," Day said.

At the same time, the city's workforce often lacks the specific skills manufacturing companies need today, the panelists agreed.

"We can add land, we can add infrastructure ... but workforce is the biggest challenge that we have," said Chokhani, who is chief operating officer of Welspun's Americas operations.

Gina Radke, the third panelist participating in the luncheon discussion at the Clinton Presidential Library, said manufacturing still has to overcome an image problem. "It's not the dying, dirty, archaic career that everyone thinks it is," said Radke, chief executive officer of Galley Support Innovations in Sherwood. The company manufactures parts for the aviation industry and has more than 40 employees.

Design and programming are integral parts of manufacturing, she said. "Technology is really what is pushing manufacturing today," Radke said, noting that continual investment in technology is vital to remaining competitive.

Little Rock has been successful in attracting new manufacturers, particularly in drawing them to the port.

Earlier this year, CZ-USA announced it will locate its North American headquarters and a production facility at a 73-acre site at the port and hire about 600 employees over the next six years. The Czech Republic-based firearms manufacturer said it would invest about $90 million in the project.

Last week, HMS Manufacturing Co. announced it will hire about 90 workers over the next two years at a new plant at the Port of Little Rock. The $20 million investment includes renovating a 500,000-square-foot facility to produce and distribute goods.

Little Rock needs to add more site-ready land and buildings to continue attracting businesses, Day said. There are no large sites currently available, he noted.

"We don't have many shovel-ready sites today, but we have laid the groundwork for the future," Day said, adding that the port authority has purchased about 1,700 acres but that property is not ready to host an industry today.

The port could pick up another 1,500-acre site with the relocation of a beacon that emits high-frequency radio signals to aid in navigation for commercial and military aircraft. Area economic development officials are working with the state's congressional delegation to relocate the beacon, but that could take more than a year, Day said.

The discussion was part of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce's Power Up Little Rock program, a quarterly series that highlights important economic development trends, issues and events within the region and the state.

Business on 11/05/2019

Print Headline: Little Rock-area bid to lure manufacturers gets tips from panelists

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