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City chips in $200K for Amfuel Plant #2 on N. Vine

by J.D. Bailey on 10/27/20

Amfuel, with a little help from the Magnolia City Council, is again set to expand its local fuel cell operation.

On Monday night, Council members passed a $200,000 economic development grant measure to aid the defense contractor with opening Amfuel Plant #2 at 1706 N. Vine Street in Magnolia. The 4.10-acre address was previously an industrial space for Shanhouse Outerwear Inc. and served as a warehouse facility for Albemarle Corporation.

With Amfuel’s expansion also comes the promise of new jobs, according to Ellie Baker, economic development director for the City of Magnolia.

“They’re going to try to increase their employees by 75 new jobs over the next 10 years,” she said Monday while explaining the parameters of the grant contract to the City Council. “They’re going to do their best to do that, but it guarantees 325 [jobs] over the next 10 years.”

Baker added that the city’s $200,000 grant will be used to repurpose and remodel the 1706 N. Vine industrial building for use as a spray booth facility. The new Amfuel property will make for its third operational facility in Magnolia.

The grant contact with Amfuel was passed unanimously by present Aldermen Larry Talley, Tia Wesson, Jeff White, Steve Crowell, Kelli Souter, Steve Nipper, and James Jefferson. Alderman Jamie Waller was not present.

The contract includes a “payback” penalty if the company cannot fulfill its job numbers, according to Baker. The new plant will be located just a half-mile north of Amfuel’s primary manufacturing facility at 601 Firestone Drive in Magnolia. The Firestone Drive site will remain in operation, according to Baker.

“They want the current building to be used for building and repairs,” she said.

The N. Vine industrial property is currently owned by JTS Capital Realty SB, an asset acquisition and management company based in Waco, Texas, according to Columbia County tax records. The firm purchased the 178,000-square foot property for $628,124 in February via a commissioner’s sale, records show. The building changed hands after JTS Capital SB in 2019 filed a civil consent decree of foreclosure against former Magnolia-based owner Trimek Properties LLC, according to Columbia County Circuit Court records. Trimek had owned the address since 2000. The county currently values the property at just over $1 million.

Amfuel’s purchase cost of the property was not stated publicly on Monday, but Elliott said the company expects to close on the N. Vine site within the next month.

The city of Magnolia and Amfuel have become serious economic partners over the past year. In October 2019, the City Council issued a $150,000 grant to help the manufacturer secure a $2.3 million U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) deal for new “preferred cell” spray booths. In that agreement, Amfuel and the DoD put up the bulk of the funding. The city in April also leased the former Zodiac-Amfuel industrial property at 2015 Field Street for a small fee. The formerly overgrown site, which had been functioning as a Magnolia Utilities storage facility, is now a completely renovated and functional manufacturing plant, according to Elliott, that employs dozens of workers.

“There will be 38 heads in that facility,” she said.

Elliott also said the company plans to add a storage extension at the property.

With Monday’s $200,000 grant, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann said the city will no longer be able to aid Amfuel again financially due to “tapped” economic development resources. He noted, though, that military contract manufacturing jobs are worth the expenditures, and the city will help support the company in any way it can. 

“My thoughts have always been that if the Department of Defense is going to invest in Magnolia, then we need to invest in Magnolia,” he said.

The new owners of Amfuel have expressed their intent to stay in Magnolia and make the plant successful. With Monday’s announced expansion, the company has thrived after its former Texas-based ownership group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly three years ago.

Amfuel has also ordered robotic systems for its spray booth operation, according to Elliott. The Amfuel executive said the equipment will not affect future hiring, stating that the company intends to increase its in-plant manpower as well.

Alderman James Jefferson, who runs a local nonprofit that deals with Columbia County District Court community service and job preparedness, said he hopes that many of his program’s participants will be considered for job opportunities as Amfuel expands.


In other City Council News: 


- The Council approved a millage increase for the Magnolia Fire Department pension fund. The new tax is levied for 2021 is 0.75 mills. Combined with the Magnolia Police Department pension fund, the total police, and fire pension millage is now 1.75 mills. The police pension millage was not raised for 2021 and will remain at 1 mill.

The city’s general fund millage will remain at 1.5 mills. This rate will generate roughly $200,000 to help pay fire and police salaries, according to City Treasurer Kim Newell.

The mayor said he thought city millage may be able to be decreased after 2021.


- A resolution was passed to fund the repaving and re-striping of three blocks-worth of Pine Street in front of the Magnolia Post Office. The cost of the project for Magnolia is $62,650. The project was aided by the state, according to the mayor. The low-bid came in from Tri-State Asphalt of DeQueen. The paving work has already been completed, but, as of Monday, it still needed to be re-striped.

Quorum Court approves hire of additional grapple truck driver, purchase of road department tractor

by J.D. Bailey on 10/06/20

The Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday passed two appropriation ordinances designed to hire additional solid waste personnel, as well as improve the county’s road equipment fleet.

In a 9-1 decision, the county’s governing body appropriated $40,314 to add a grapple truck operator to improve solid waste pickup. Of those funds, $29,244 will go toward the driver’s salary, while the remaining amount will go into social security, retirement, and health insurance costs.

The hire will give the county a total of two grapple truck operators. Columbia County Judge Denny Foster said Monday that the additional driver will ensure that both of the county’s grapple trucks can now run waste pickup routes. Both trucks are expected to feature a two-man crew featuring one driver and one collection hand.

“I’ve got an extra hand on one [truck],” said Foster. “On the other one, we’ll pull a hand from the landfill.”

When voting on the matter, Justices of the Peace Marjie Blair, Penny Cook, Oliver Thomas, Terry Williams, Steve Lee, Annette Pate, Burnie Sharp, and Lynn Story all approved of the hire, while JP Russell Thomas cast the only dissenting vote. JP Jason Ray was not present.

Local solid waste complaints had risen in the summer, but, on Monday, JP Oliver Thomas, who heads the Quorum Court’s solid waste committee, said he had received only a small number of complaints over the past month. One issue dealt with a delayed trash pickup, while another citizen reported a case of broken wheels on his trash canister after being emptied.

The quorum court on Monday also moved $125,000 from its Asphalt Fund into its Machinery and Equipment Fund for the purchase of a new tractor to be used by the Columbia County Road Department. The move was made to replace an old, often-sidelined road maintenance tractor.

“I’ve got one that’s been in the shop eight, nine, 10 weeks this year, and they still haven’t got it fixed,” said Foster. “It’s just becoming a liability at this point.”

The judge noted that the funds for the tractor purchase were available in the Asphalt fund and that he wished to fill the equipment void this year. The tractor will be used for bush-hogging, according to Foster. The judge said he plans to shop around to find the best deal on the new purchase.

The appropriation measure was passed unanimously by the court. Before the vote, JP Russell Thomas asked the judge why the Asphalt funds were not being used for road paving.

“Due to the weather, we haven’t had a dry enough period to use it,” Foster replied. “That’s the reason we’re taking part of [the funds] out.”

The judge also said that the frequent breakdown of the old tractor has hindered the county from working at its full potential.

County recognizes law enforcement workers as public safety officers to help secure CARES Act grant funds

by J.D. Bailey on 10/06/20

Columbia County has now recognized its law enforcement workers as public health officials during the coronavirus pandemic. A resolution was passed Monday by local Quorum Court that designating the county employees as such.


The move was made to enable help the county to qualify for hazard pay grant monies passed down by the state. The funds are part of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act Relief Bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in late March. Part of the monies in the coronavirus aid package was designated to provide financial relief for state and local governments through hazard pay to employees that have potentially been exposed to the virus as part of their job duties.

Law enforcement workers now recognized as public safety officers include Columbia County jailors, transport officers, certified law enforcement officers, bailiffs, coroners, and applicable 9-1-1 and law enforcement dispatchers. By acknowledging that these employees, the county qualifies for grant funds from the CARES Act.

Foster said Monday that $150 million from the federal relief package was appropriated to the state -- $75 million for county governments and $75 million for city governments -- to provide local aid during the coronavirus pandemic. Columbia County is eligible to recover nearly $676,000 for public safety expenses, according to the judge.

“What they’re allowing us to do is to recoup part, if not all, of the [public safety] salaries to help the counties out in the fight against COVID,” he said.
An Arkansas government committee must now approve the county’s grant request before it can be dispersed locally. To receive its share of the federal emergency funds, Columbia County must apply to the state and prove that its expenses were used for public safety.

If the law enforcement salary expenses are approved, the funds gained will go directly into Columbia County’s general fund, and hazard pay expenses will be reported back to the state for grant reimbursement, according to Foster.

“Basically, its given money,” said judge added. “They’re just giving it back to us, but we’ve got to prove that we used it and what we used it for.”

The county has until Oct. 15 to apply for CARES Act grant monies. If it is denied the first time, it can re-apply for the funds by Nov. 15. The relief funds issued to the state must be spent by the end of the year or they will be refunded back to the federal government, according to the judge.

 

When asked if the county was likely to receive the emergency relief funds, Foster replied, “We’re going to be caught trying.”