The mural that was commissioned for the building he purchased and renovated into studio apartments is a tribute to the rural economy.

Emblazoned with images of heroic defense workers against a backdrop of rockets, missiles and fighter jets, it is also a billboard he hopes will draw more engineers, technicians and interns who make up most of his tenants.

A Cup of Joe is a new coffee shop that is located in the same building as the former Army reserve. There are murals about the Civil War already. It is time to move forward in the modern age.

Letter from Camden

Camden, Arkansas, is banking on a revival of defense production to help ease the pain of two decades of economic dislocation and shrinking population.

There are depictions of the Multiple Launch Rocket System and Army Tactical Missile Systems that are located in Highland Industrial Park.

In the back woods of southern Arkansas, some of the nation's busiest weapons plants are preparing for historic levels of defense spending and to replenish the stocks of cannons, missiles, and other weapons that have been ferried off to helpUkraine. There are many images of burned out Russian military vehicles on the internet. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is being fueled by access to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which is helping turn the tide against the Russians.

It has become a conflict that could last for many more months before it is over. Inventory in the U.S. and Europe have been drained because of high demand for weapons in Ukraine. There is a scramble to replenish the missiles and rounds that have already been taken from the armories.

The mural doesn't show that the supply is in danger. The weapons factories are facing an acute shortage of skilled labor in the area that is still reeling from two decades of population exodus brought on by the closing of a major paper bag plant.

Welcome to Camden sign

Many of the estimated 2,800 workers employed in the defense plants in Camden, AR are commuting from places such as El Dorado, Hot Springs, or even Little Rock more than 100 miles away.

More than a dozen conversations with defense industry executives, business and political leaders and long-time residents offered a local example of a nationwide struggle to fill high-tech, high paying jobs. A longstanding weakness in the U.S. workforce could have serious consequences for allies in the event of a conflict. It is one reason why defense industry leaders have been warning Congress that it could take several years to replace some of the weapons supplies that have been so deplete.

Where do we find the technical workers who are willing to work in south Arkansas? The secretary of commerce asked when we met. More people are working in the history of our state now than ever before. Unemployment is at 3.3 percent. There are tens of thousands of jobs in our state.

New attention is being given to the Camden area by Washington.

Letter from Camden

John Schaffitzel, president of Highland Industrial Park in East Camden, stands between explosive storage bunkers built during World War II that are now used by leading weapons contractors. "How do you create a quality of life in a town of 12,000 to attract skilled workers and engineers to come and live?”

John Boozman, the state's senior U.S. senator, told me that a lot of the weapons being made there are being used. Ensuring the workforce is there is what we have been trying to do. Ensuring we have affordable housing, good education systems, and good health care systems are some of the things we need to do. Ensuring that our Vocational-technical colleges are able to provide the workforce that they need.

There are skills gaps among the locals. Arkansas has historically been near the bottom of educational achievement. The challenges are more severe in the south. In Camden, roughly half of the adult population has a high school equivalency or less, and only 15 percent have a four-year college degree. Making the area more attractive for workers from outside the region is the solution for now.

The president of the Highland Industrial Park said over dinner at Postmasters Grille that he was worried about the defense workforce. There is a lot of energy here. How do you put grants in the right place to give a sense of quality of life for these workers? In a town of 12,000, how do you attract skilled workers and engineers to live and work?

Rocket Dyne sign

There are significant shortfalls in skills among the local population. Recent government data shows that in Camden, roughly half the adult population has a high school equivalency or less and only 15 percent have a four-year college degree.

Outside of the region, the crossroads of the two counties is not known as a major hub of defense production. Even though Camden is important to weapons manufacturing, it doesn't have a cool nickname like "Rocket City"

"I tell people, 'When you think you're lost, you're almost here,'" joked the director of operations at General Dynamics, who has lived in the area for 18 years.

Naval ship buidling

The Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot was built in World War II. It is now a private industrial park and a production hub for weapons makers Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon Technologies, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. | Photos Courtesy Highland Industrial Park

At the height of World War II, the Navy built the Shumaker Naval Ammunition depot in East Camden to assemble torpedoes, bombs and other explosives. The 18,500 acres of the Highland Industrial Park are used for weapons production. Scores of storehouses that date back nearly 80 years are among the manufacturing and warehousing facilities in the landscape.

Arkansas is a right-to-work state and has attracted defense contractors. The executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said that he uses it in his sales pitches. It doesn't bother us at all. The biggest draw for the defense industry to the area has always been the 700 highly secure earthen Bunkers that were dug during World War II deep in the woods.

Left: Bunkers Right: Lockheed Martin Sign

Bunkers and Lockheed Martin Factory at Highland Industrial Park. The biggest draw for the defense industry to the area has always been the 700 highly secure earthen bunkers, or explosive storage magazines, that were dug during World War II deep in the woods.

It is an extremely dangerous line of work that needs a safe environment. The industrial park has signs that say "safety always" and "right the first time", as well as unique facilities that are needed to warehouse the weapons once they are assembled.

Some of America's largest defense contractors have invested significant capital in Camden to build a variety of their major weapons systems. There needs to be a place to store incoming material and there needs to be a place to store outgoing material.

The industrial center has become a nerve center for some of the nation's biggest military contractors, as well as some of their weapons that have slowed and, in some cases, even beat back the Russians.

rocket taking off

Recent talk of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive has been helped by access to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which is built in weapon plants nestled in the remote backwoods of southern Arkansas. | Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP Photo

The components for the Navy's missiles are built by the company. The Army has assembled a number of anti-missile systems, including the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 and Theater High Altitude Area Defense. General Dynamics builds air-to-ground rockets and the warheads for a pair of weapons that have become household names. Aerojet Rocketdyne opened a new 51,000-foot facility in August and supplies the other companies. Smaller suppliers back them all.

The conflict in Ukraine is one of the few in recent decades where so many heavy weapons designed for conventional warfare are used.

Letter from Camden

Left: Ukrainian servicemen unpack Javelin anti-tank missiles, delivered as part of the United States of America's security assistance to Ukraine, at the Boryspil airport, outside Kyiv. Right: Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Kharkiv region | Evgeniy Maloletka/AP; Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Many of the jobs here are in the six figure range.

Daniel told me that his friends don't make a lot of comments about the war inUkraine. When I'm with my family, it's the same. My friends and family work at the manufacturing plants that make rockets. It's not certain if this one is going to Taiwan or Ukraine.

closed paper factory

Closed paper mill in Camden, AR. The weapons factories are facing an acute shortage of skilled labor in a region that is still struggling from two decades of population exodus brought on by the closure of a major paper bag plant.

Many of the 2,800 workers employed in the defense plants commute from places such as El Dorado, Hot Springs, or even Little Rock to return to their homes in more attractive cities and towns.

The executive director of the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development told me that the town has lost population. Camden had a high of 15,800 in the 1960s, but has lost over 2000 people in the last 10 years.

Letter from Camden

James Lee Silliman, executive director of the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development, is a Camden native who said the town is still reeling from the closure of the International Paper plant in 2000. "I would hate to think what our area would be like without the aerospace and defense industry ... They’ve kept the light on.”

He said that was the case of all of Arkansas. The community is trying to make it more attractive.

There are two large photographs of the former International Paper plant that operated for 73 years before shutting down in 2000.

pawn shop sign with flag and abandoned home

The population of Camden, AR hit a high of 15,800 in the 1960s, but it has lost nearly 2,000 people just in the last decade.

He said it was a big loss. Over the last 22 years, we have had some difficulties. I don't know what our area would be like without the defense industry in Highland Park. Aerojet and Lockheed have added jobs. The light is still on.

Southern Arkansas University Tech is a two-year community college that is an incubator for the weapons plants and provides workforce development training.

The main cluster of campus buildings seem to be in the middle of two worlds.

The modern student center, dining hall and athletic facility are in close proximity to dilapidated barracks and makeshift classrooms that are being refurbished to accommodate more students. The student body at SAU Tech has doubled in the last five years. In terms of percentage terms, it is expected to reach up to 120 by the fall of 2023.

Chancellor Morrison told me that they do a lot of custom training for the industry. People who work in other industries need to be retrained.

Letter from Camden

Brooke Avant is a second-year student studying cybersecurity at Southern Arkansas University Tech, which Chancellor Jason Morrison says is ramping up to help meet the workforce needs of the adjacent arms factories. "There’s so many jobs open right now.”

He replaced the school's mascot, the Varmints, with the Rockets when he took the job.

He said that it was the center of the history here. In south Arkansas, what do we do? We build rockets. rocket motors are made by us The defense industry and NASA are supported by us. It has the potential to grow. The college is responsible for preparing students for the jobs of the future.

Most of the prospective students he pitches come from the local area. The children of workers on the assembly lines are often the first generation in their family to go to college.

He said that if you complete a two-year degree you will make more money than someone with a four-year degree.

These are not the dirty factory jobs of your fathers or grandmothers. Morrison thinks a lot of students don't know what manufacturing is. The world of manufacturing is very clean.

SRU Tech pendant

Southern Arkansas University Tech Chancelor Jason Morrison is holding a school pennant in his office. One of the first things he did when he took the job more than five years ago was to replace the school’s mascot, the Varmints, with the Rockets. “What do we do in south Arkansas? We make rockets,” Morrison said.

Brooke is a second-year student who is earning an associate's degree in cyber security. She told me that she switched from psychology to cybersecurity because of the field's growth.

I asked if she was considering following in her father's footsteps and trying to get a job. She thinks that could be a potential workplace.

Morrison is a member of the workforce advisory board and he says it is difficult for the technical college to keep up with demand for workers.

Aerojet has Positions in Camden. Three dozen openings are on the list. The company is advertising 18 The career website of General Dynamics has many more listings. The number of jobs is close to the total number of students at the school.

The industries are busy. It feels in the air. The traffic arrives and leaves. A lot of activity is happening. There are a lot of jobs available right now. There are a lot of jobs to choose from.

Letter from Camden

Downtown Camden is showing new signs of life after decades of depression.

The Camden Mayor, dressed in a gray suit and open collared shirt, worked the lunch crowd at a Mexican restaurant. He got up from his seat to greet an old man who was looking for him.

Lott is the first elected Black mayor of the city and he is running for a second term. The argument that Camden has been on the rise under his leadership is one of the main points of his platform.

Letter from Camden

Mayor Julian Lott, who is also a minister, is bullish on Camden's ability to attract high-skilled workers - including with new businesses like A Cup of Joe coffee shop.

Lott told me that we were heading in a good direction. Businesses are moving. Young people are making money. They shouldn't have to drive two hours to their jobs. That doesn't make sense. That is dangerous but it is also draining our community.

The impact of the mini-boom at the weapons plants is being felt in some un-military downtown businesses.

Cecilia Davoren told me that most of the buildings were empty when they first opened. She said that the foot traffic is picking up and that she is balancing out her online business.

The storefront is empty. A sign is leaning against the wall in the window. It's full of opportunities.

Davoren said that small businesses want to invest in downtown. It has been lots of work. Some people make downtown really nice. It's getting bigger. It's getting bigger.

Letter from Camden

Cecilia Davoren (left), one of the proprietors of Artisana Soaps in Camden, is helping to fuel downtown Camden's slow by steady revival. "It’s growing. It’s growing," she says. But many of the adjoining storefronts are still abandoned.

A year and a half ago, a Camden native and his wife opened Native Dog Brewery, which is located down an alley and over a street. The line workers and executives at the nearby defense plants were looking for a place to socialize and connect with the community.

New steps are being taken by the Biden administration and Congress to make sure the expansion continues.

The White House announced the largest aid disbursement for Ukraine in August. More than half of the allies that have transferred weapons to Ukraine have also done so. In the upcoming fiscal year, it is requesting billions of dollars. It is financing contracts for new production for the first time since the beginning of the war.

Daniel, the up-and-coming developer, said of the handful of old commercial buildings he has now bought up on the same block that he wishes he had 10 more of them. People who work at the industrial plant are in high demand for housing.

The war in Ukranian helps guarantee they are going to be here longer, which is good for us, said Glaze, who was tending to chores at the brewery. The more jobs they bring into the community, the better. We need to make sure we keep them going.

Mayor Lott wants to make sure locals, who are majority Black, get the training in science, technology, engineering and math they need to fill some of the good paying jobs out at Highland Park.

He told me that they were encouraging all minorities to get involved. Some of that is helped by the fact that Lockheed Martin is one of the proponents. There is a program at the high school. Is it possible to get hired and get a certain position? There are stories on the street that aren't the same. That is a reputation issue that they will have to overcome.

Letter from Camden

California artist Kiptoe was commissioned in 2019 to paint a downtown mural paying homage to the local defense industry and some of the weapon systems assembled in the Camden area.

The mayor-minister thought that he was so reliant on weapons of war to lift the fortunes of a place that needed it. He is proud of the work that is being done here but can't help but think about the consequences when the products they build are sold or transferred to other countries

He worked for a weapons supplier before moving to Camden, but he wouldn't say who. It was a four hour shift with little activity at the storage bunkers he was paid to watch.

He said he was waiting on two trucks. We were having a conversation.

The customers may be for those weapons.

I thought that the company was selling the same product on both sides.