Arkansas may be more well known for agriculture and tourism, but the aerospace and defense industry is also one of the largest sectors with 15.4 percent of the state’s total exports.
More than 240 companies are engaged in the industry that employs about 10,000 people, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in the keynote address Wednesday at the Mid-America Aerospace + Defense Summit in the Fort Smith Convention Center.
“It is our largest single export category ... 15.4 percent of our total exports,” Hutchinson said of the Arkansas aerospace industry. “I think we have an incredible foundation, but I think it’s a foundation that can grow and expand and we as a state are committed to making that a priority. A key ingredient is that it is a national priority.”
Attracting businesses and representatives from 10 states and several countries, this was the first Mid-America Aerospace + Defense Summit, but it was not the first time Fort Smith has hosted the group that puts on the event.
Chad Causey, executive director of the Arkansas Aerospace & Defense Alliance, said the Mid-America Aerospace + Defense Summit was held in Fort Smith this year because of an attempt to expand the outreach to regional companies in the industry. The alliance, which counts the Fort Smith Regional Airport as a member, also held its Arkansas summits in Fort Smith between 2012 and 2014. In all, Causey said companies from about 10 states and three countries were represented at the summit.
U.S. Rep. Steve. Womack, R-Rogers, stressed the importance of a strong national defense during a speech at the summit on Wednesday. Members of the 188th Wing, a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) unit operating from Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, were also in attendance at the summit with displays of some of their equipment.
Displays of aerospace industry equipment were also being shown by airplane part manufacturer CMT Inc. of Hot Springs, and Galley Support Innovations of Sherwood and Seattle.
Examples of large aerospace-defense industry players in Arkansas the governor mentioned include Aerojet Rocketdyne, with a $44 million investment for 140 new jobs, as well as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Dassault Falcon.
Hutchinson also commented on a meeting he recently had with the consulate general of Canada and the need for a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. Hutchinson said he would be attending the Paris Air Show this year for the third year in an attempt to attract more foreign investment and jobs in Arkansas.
Foreign investment is a “key driver” in the state’s economic development, Hutchinson said with growth of about 20 percent in that sector in the past five years. One of those successes, he noted, was CZ-USA, an arms company that announced this week it was building its North American headquarters at the Port of Little Rock to create 560 new jobs with a $90 million investment.
Hutchinson also mentioned statewide efforts being done to educate the future workforce in computer science, new income tax exemptions for military retirees in Arkansas and other tax breaks for businesses, as well as plans to fund infrastructure improvements with a $300 million highway bill up for vote in November 2020.
Austin Williams, co-founder and chief software architect for Ambots in Fayetteville, was among the many businesses at the summit. His company uses robots and 3-D printers for parts used in the logistics industry by ArcBest. William Grafton, owner/operator of Icarus Vision in Little Rock, was another vendor showcasing the latest in small unmanned aerial systems technology.
“As far as applications go, you’re only limited to your imagination, and the weather,” Grafton said of the "drones."
The small craft with cameras are used often these days for real estate photography, building and bridge inspections, and agricultural surveys. In addition to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, which has new unmanned aerial systems degree programs, Henderson State University’s well-known aviation education program was also represented at the summit.
Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said the aerospace and defense industries is “hidden treasure of our state” and the AEDC will continue to be advocates of the industry.