Although Whirlpool exec Jeff Noel was in Fort Smith to talk about the pollution problem at the company’s closed manufacturing plant, he did deliver encouraging news with respect to the future of the shuttered facility.
Whirlpool is under pressure to clean up potentially cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) that the company admits leaked into the groundwater in and near its former manufacturing facility in Fort Smith.
Officials with Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp. said in October 2011 they would close the Fort Smith plant. The eventual June 2102 closure of the plant marked the end of more than 45 years of Whirlpool operations in Fort Smith. Employment at the plant ranged from a high of 4,600 in early 2006 to around 1,000 when the plant closed.
Whirlpool Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Jeff Noel said Tuesday the company is working with a party interested in buying the 2.2 million square-feet of buildings and the 152 acres on which they sit. Noel made the statement while addressing the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Oct. 8) about the company’s TCE remediation plans.
"Look, we have a great site and I want to let you know that in addition to the site being located in a great community, we are working with several parties that have a strong interest in the acquisition of the site,” Noel said. “One in particular, and that one in particular has already gone to the due diligence stages. They are using their time, their energy and their resources to be convinced that this is the right opportunity and the right location.”
He said the potential buyer is interested in creating “a mixed use type of commercial center for warehousing, distribution, manufacturing, advanced manufacturing and commercial enterprises that can take this parcel of ground and turn it into a growth opportunity for tax base and employment.”
Noel pointed out several advantages the property holds for potential reuse.
• "I think if you look at the site and this is an aerial photograph of the Whirlpool Corporation parcel of property, it's important to remind ourselves (that) this is 152 acres. And where I'm from and in a lot of communities, they do a lot of things to try to create (a) 152 acre industrial or commercial site to try to attract investments.”
• "This is also a site that's accessible by major highways and I think with (Interstate) 540 running here and with the Jenny Lind Road improvements, you're talking about further making this an outstanding site for anyone who would like to come in and utilize the property.”
• "It's rail-served and I know there's some individuals here from the Arkansas Economic Development Department and I think they'll share with me - 100 plus acre sites serviced by rail today are hard to come by. It's a great asset.”
Noel also said Whirlpool officials are selective with potential buyers.
"And I also will share with you that we've had a lot of people call with an interest in the property and we put everyone through a screening process because we want individuals or companies that have done this before, that have the financial wherewithal to do this and be successful, that have the experience in bringing people in to utilize a piece of property like this and also have the commitment and willingness to work with the community and we think that we have a couple folks that definitely fit that bill and we look forward to having you working with them once we get through this due diligence phase of the process going forward,” Noel explained.
It’s not the first time Whirlpool had an interested buyer on the hook.
Whirlpool officials announced in early September 2012 that Concord, Ontario-based Infinity Asset Solutions had purchased the building. Infinity “focuses on the disposition of assets for private and public companies, insolvency and financial institutions, as well as leasing companies.” However, the transaction was never finalized and in November it was learned the deal between Whirlpool and Infinity was off.
Tim Allen, president of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and state officials, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, have said they will have a better chance of returning jobs to the site when Whirlpool no longer owns it. Beebe, who said in an August 2012 interview with Talk Business that he “was not happy with Whirlpool,” talked about the effort to bring jobs to the facility.
“Problem is, Whirlpool still owns it and doesn’t want it marketed to a competitor,” Beebe said in the August 2012 interview.