Change comes to small-town America. It comes slowly, but it does come. Change is also incremental – 2022 in Magnolia is going to look a lot like 2021, but with enhancements. Our sense is that in many ways, 2022 will be a fairly quiet, transitional year, with bigger changes coming in 2023 and beyond.
Lithium. The prospect for lithium production in Columbia County could be the most important economic development news here in two generations. The cautionary note is that all of the talk – all of it – is speculative. Yes, Standard Lithium might dive into the development of a brine field in Columbia and Lafayette counties for lithium extraction. Galvanic Energy may do something similar. Albemarle Corporation, which is in the best position to produce battery-quality lithium here, appears in no rush. And none of it will happen unless Albemarle, Standard and Galvanic commit to hundreds of millions in investment for pump, pipe and extraction facilities. It may happen, but even if these investments were made today, it would be well into 2023 or 2024 before you’d notice anything.
Wood products. Dance with the girl what brought ‘ya. If there’s going to be any dramatic economic development news in Columbia County and South Arkansas, wood products will likely be involved. Weyerhaeuser recently announced plans for a $10.7 million expansion at its Emerson plywood mill. Now, a $10.7 million project is nice but in terms of building or upgrading a wood products facility, it’s not huge. Totally new mills are $200 million plus projects. South Arkansas timber companies are in a constant state of flux. Hixson Lumber sold out last year to Doman Building Materials Group. PotlatchDeltic just bought 51,340 acres of timberland in South Arkansas and North Louisiana from Loutre Land and Timber. There was a report last year that a company plans to build a wood pellet mill in the Buena Vista area near Stephens. But here again, if an expansion or improvement project is coming, actual jobs are 2-3 years out.
Infrastructure. If it sticks to its previously announced schedule, the Louisiana & North West Railroad will soon start a $3.4 million project to upgrade 25 miles of track in Columbia County. This would include 17 miles of handle 286,000-pound loads. The current U.S. 82 widening project should be winding down by the end of the year. ARDOT is in the comment period for extending the four-lane from near the PotlatchDeltic mill to the Arkansas 98 intersection west of Waldo. But here again, don’t expect any work to commence until 2023 or later.
Education Infrastructure. The Magnolia School District is eying construction of a new 1st and 2nd grade building at East Side Elementary. We don’t know of any construction plans at SAU. SAU could use a quality arena and maybe an aquatic center, but we wouldn’t look for anything to happen unless someone just happens to gift it. Given its current enrollment and program needs, SAU appears to be OK with facilities at the moment.
Restaurants. The pad has been laid for the new Whataburger in Magnolia, so we might anticipate a spring opening. Private investors have five projects in the works that we know about, but when or if these actually come into being, we’ll have to see. Lots of people go into the business but there’s a lot of churn. If you find a new restaurant that you like, enjoy it while it lasts.
Quality of Life. A quiet bit of news, with huge potential for affecting the quality of life in Magnolia, was the decision of the Magnolia School Board to hire an event coordinator for the new Magnolia Performing Arts Center. In addition to managing the day-to-day use of the MPAC for district activities, this will also be the point person to coordinate its use with non-school groups, such as traveling performers. It could take a little time, but it’s possible to put Magnolia on the circuit for traveling acts, events and speakers that would not normally find their way to Magnolia. The success of Hempstead Hall at the University of Arkansas-Hope is a model for what can happen. Other important quality of life projects, such as the Boys & Girls Club and Magnolia Arts Center expansions, will see limited progress until funds become available. We expect the South Arkansas Heritage Museum to open to the public this year, but it will also need time to get on its feet before there’s a consistent availability of traveling exhibits and speakers.
That’s a little preview of what we see happening in 2022. We may have more to say later.
Too late for the previous tax year, but you can always plan ahead. If you want to see our community make real progress in the years ahead, consider donations to the endowments and foundations of one or more civic groups, such as the Boys & Girls Club. Almost all of them have an endowment that’s operated independently, or through the Columbia County Community Foundation.
Buc-ee’s Watch: The mega convenience store has announced its latest location in Pass Christian, MS, north of New Orleans. Still hoping for a Buc-ee’s in Southwest Arkansas along Interstate 30.
The monster of COVID-19 has come out of it cage during the past month with case numbers rivaling that which we experienced last year. We urge the public to pay attention to real medical experts and to ignore the Facebook and Twitter ramblings of people who have no medical expertise. Get your vaccinations. Stay home if you are sick. Wear masks. Maintain a safe distance from other people. Keep high standards of personal hygiene.
We stepped outside New Year’s Eve to listen for gunfire, and heard it. It’s irresponsible to fire guns into the air to celebrate a holiday.