By CHUCK BARTELS
AP Business Writer
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas workers endured layoffs across a number of industries in 2011 but the state economy also had its bright spots late in the year, with an improving employment picture and the opening of what may be the state’s most important attraction.
The unemployment picture improved in October and November when the state rate dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 8.0 percent heading into December.
Arkansas had 10,000 more people working in November than in November 2010, with an additional 6,700 people in the civilian labor force.
State tourism can look forward to a boost in 2012 with the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Bankrolled by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton fortune, estimated at $20.9 billion, the museum is stocked with important works that span U.S. history. The facility, which opened its doors on Nov. 11, has state tourism officials expecting it to be a bigger tourism draw than the Clinton Presidential Center, which led to the revitalization of downtown Little Rock.
The museum is built as a series of connected pavilions in a ravine amid 120 wooded acres. It’s also walking distance from Bentonville’s downtown square, which is expected to see an extended boom thanks to the museum. Construction is under way on a $28 million upscale hotel that will cater to museum visitors.
Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. donated $20 million to make up revenue that Crystal Bridges would have taken in from a planned $10 admission fee. So the museum also features free admission to add to its allure.
On the business side, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, made gains during the year in its effort to win back shoppers after the company began to restock items it had cut in an attempt to unclutter its stores. Wal-Mart’s fiscal year concludes at the end of January.
The company expanded into South Africa with its purchase of Massmart stores and, for a time, appeared to have won approval to open retail stores in India as it works to expand its international footprint.
Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc. weathered increases in grain prices that caused its income for fiscal 2011 to drop slightly from the year before. The company announced in November it earned $750 million in the year, down $30 million from 2010. Tyson CEO Donnie Smith says chicken supplies are expected to decline in 2012, which should enable Tyson to raise prices and increase profits in that segment.
Few were surprised by news in October that Whirlpool Corp. would shut down its refrigerator factory in Fort Smith, a facility that was the centerpiece employer for the state’s industrial capital.
The plant had employed 4,600 people five years earlier, but it opened a factory in Mexico tooled to do the same work and gradual layoffs began in Arkansas. Whirlpool had about 1,000 workers left at the plant when it announced it would close in mid-2012.
Numerous businesses in the area that supplied the Whirlpool plant suffered as it shrank prior to the closure announcement.
Massive national home foreclosures and a slowdown in the homebuilding sector dried up business for the state’s timber industry.
In Crossett, Georgia-Pacific LLC announced in September it would indefinitely suspend its plywood and stud production, laying off 700 people from the city’s largest employer.
The slow business climate helped lead to a decrease in demand for freesheet paper and Domtar Corp. laid off 110 workers at its mill in Ashdown. The company announced in March it would permanently shut down one of its paper machines. The mill had 940 workers after the layoff.
The energy sector showed strength throughout the year and signs point to continued investment in 2012.
Natural gas drilling in the Fayetteville Shale continued to bring jobs and income to the state. Southwestern Energy Co. announced in December it plans to spend more than $1.2 billion in 2012, a slight decline from 2011, but the Houston-based company noted that it has employed a number of efficiencies as its gas drilling operation has matured.
Southwestern also said it plans oil exploration in south Arkansas, where companies are trying to tap reserves thousands of feet deeper than oil that was pumped out in the early 20th century.
In August, Saint-Gobain Corp. announced it would spend $100 billion on a plant that will make ceramic particles that help keep rock fractures open in gas wells. About 140 people are to be employed making ceramic "proppants." The company already has a Fort Smith plant that employs 200 and has facilities in Little Rock, Glenwood and Hot Springs.
In other energy news, Southwestern Electric Power Co. ended 2011 by beating back the last of its opponents to a $2.1 billion coal-fired electric generation plant it is building in Hempstead County.
First the company reached an accord with nearby landowners who agreed to end litigation after the utility made concessions. In December, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society also settled, winning a promise from SWEPCO that it would shutter an older coal-fired electric station in northeast Texas.
In agriculture, Arkansas farmers endured spring flooding, a summer drought and, in places, snow during harvest time. Still, agriculture officials say crops fared generally fared well.
Bayer CropScience announced in December that enough rice growers had signed on to a lawsuit settlement that it would move forward with a $750 million package to compensate them for genetically modified rice that was inadvertently introduced.
But not all farmers opted for the settlement.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, also in December, upheld a jury award of nearly $50 million to a group of farmers in Lonoke.
After the contaminated rice seed was introduced in 2006, European countries stopped buying U.S.-produced rice, which drove down prices. Bayer argued that damages were minimal and short-term.