Editor’s Note: “The Economic Development Side” originally appears in the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce’s weekly member e-newsletter. It is written by Rhonda Dishner, the Economic Development Alliance’s executive assistant.

— I didn’t realize just how big this plant is.

— This is the best industry tour we’ve ever done.

— Wow!

— This is really impressive.

— Look at the size of that piece of equipment!

— I’m glad I got to go on this tour.

— This plant is so complex.

These are a few of the comments heard last Wednesday as 24 members and invited guests of the Jefferson County Manufacturing Council (JCMC) toured the new Highland Pellets plant in Pine Bluff’s Jefferson Industrial Park.

The early morning tour served as the July program for JCMC, a membership organization for local industrial executives that is sponsored by the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County (Alliance).

The founder and chairman of Boston-based Highland Pellets, Tom Reilley, was on hand to greet the visitors. Plant Manager Jody Doak led one of the two groups of 12 taking in the plant’s impressive operations for the first time.

Before the tours, though, there was a gathering at the office building for a breakfast buffet during which a short “promo” video was shown to introduce the group to Highland Pellets. A mandatory safety video also was shown. A short time later, as the group was “gearing up” in bright orange safety vests, safety glasses, hard hats and ear plugs, a drone-shot video gave them a real “over view” of the plant’s enormous footprint on the site. Attendees also had been advised to wear close-toed shoes for safety and for comfort during the walkabout portion of the tour.

Highland’s Pine Bluff wood pellet manufacturing process actually begins with logging operations in mostly pine timberlands of South Arkansas. According to the company, it has created about 1,000 “indirect” jobs associated with bringing in these raw materials. The new plant itself currently has 68 employees.

Last week’s visitors to the plant saw the state-of-the-art production process from beginning (log trucks arriving) to end (pellets in drying and pressing equipment). Or more accurately, finished wood pellets ready to leave by railcar.

Among the talked-about observations, one group watched in amazement as a gigantic claw scooped up the entire load of a log truck in one “bite.” In fact, according to several who toured the operations, the scale of everything onsite seems to be in varying degrees of huge.

Three of four planned production lines at the plant are now up and running. The company’s goal is production of 600,000 metric tons per year of sustainable wood fuel pellets for shipment to Europe. Limited start-up production began in late 2016 and, according to its website, the first train load of pellets was shipped out this April.

Videos about Highland’s Pine Bluff operations are available on the Internet.