story by Ryan Saylor
The city of Greenwood is hosting the Arkansas Economic Development Commission this week as state’s development arm holds its monthly meeting in the city Wednesday and Thursday. It’s the first time for the commission to be in the Fort Smith region in about three years.
Commissioners and AEDC staff spent much of Wednesday exploring the region on a guided tour led by various Sebastian County natives, including Justice of the Peace Phil Hicks.
According to Commissioner Lee Webb, who also serves as chairman of the Sebastian County Election Commission, the meetings held each month in different parts of the state are a way for the commission to connect with communities and send a clear message to residents and business leaders.
"It shows the support statewide every time the Arkansas Economic Development Commission goes to a city," Webb said. "It shows the state has the community's back. If they ask for something, we're there willing to help."
Bryan Scoggins, AEDC's director of business finance, said the meetings allow "the commissioners to go out and see what's going on in all the various corners of the state."
"When we have these meetings and they get to go to the various communities, they do tours like this to see what's going on in the community, what's the vibe like? What are the needs, even. It doesn't always coincide that the projects that we're looking at are in the meetings, but you still get a feel for the area."
Scoggins said it is visits to communities, such as Greenwood, that illustrate how important the work of the commission is as cities across the state continue to recover from the economic collapse of 2008 and the exodus of jobs that followed.
"The primary things we do is work with the local area economic developers to try to find out what is the vision for how we are going to replace these positions that we lost or who would be target companies to go talk to. Or even if you have targeted companies, then we have meetings with them to try to figure out is there a way for us to make a new project happen?"
As part of those discussions, he said AEDC promotes not only the infrastructure available in certain communities or special financing available through AEDC, but also the workforce available to take jobs should a company locate a facility somewhere within the state.
It is those types of conversations that AEDC started when Gov. Mike Beebe made the trip to Orlando, Fla., in August 2013 to meet with companies looking to relocate manufacturing jobs to the United States as part of a push by Wal-Mart to increase its purchase of American-made goods by $50 billion in the next decade. Scoggins said discussions with companies have continued since then.
"There's been a tremendous amount of interest and activity and trying to work together with and through Wal-Mart to try to identify those opportunities. We've had a couple of announcements along those lines and plans continue."
He said while AEDC is not able to announce anything directly related to Wal-Mart's onshoring effort, talks with manufacturers and suppliers continue. As for how many jobs any new manufacturing facilities could provide the state, Scoggins said that would be impossible to know.
As of November 2013, 1.226 million jobs existed in the state, a 5.64% decline from the state's highest ever level of 1.299 million in March 2008 — or 73,564 fewer jobs. Scoggins said while everyone would like to see those jobs return, the sluggish recovery taking place across many sections of Arkansas is simply "a jobless recovery."
"A lot of the projects that we're working have smaller numbers associated with them because people are having to make such efficiency moves that require more automation and that sort of thing associated with them. So I'm guessing that because of the employment base drop, some people left the workforce or some people even moved for the workforce, so it's going to be hard to pull them back in. I think that what we're going to end up focusing on probably is not so much growing the workforce as it is shrinking that unemployment rate."
The most recent jobless numbers in Arkansas show an unemployment rate of 7.4% in December 2013, up from 7.1% at the same time a year earlier. The unemployment rate statewide was as high was 7.9% in 2011.
AEDC Commissioner Chester Koprovic, a Fort Smith native whose background is in manufacturing, said changes in the economy over the years has shown a movement away from manufacturing jobs. He said that shift also is reflected on the membership of the commission.
"When I first went on the commission, probably the majority of it was manufacturers. And I'm one of the few manufacturers left on the commission. A lot of them are developers, attorneys, finance people, but everyone brings their own perspective on what economic developments all about. So it's a really good mix,” Koprovic explained.
And while he and the rest of the commission are bound by confidentiality agreements about any closed door business it conducts, he said the Fort Smith region should be encouraged by the work AEDC has done on the region's behalf.
"Yes, there has been some talk about some different growth in Fort Smith. Some of it's going to happen fairly soon."
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, who attended an AEDC reception at Chateau on the Greens in Greenwood Wednesday night (Feb. 12), confirmed what Koprovic had said.
"We're anticipating hopefully an announcement in the next couple of weeks of some new jobs in Fort Smith. An existing company adding some jobs," he said.
AEDC meetings will continue in Greenwood Thursday (Feb. 13) at Greenwood City Hall, located at 30 Bell Road. The meetings will begin at 8:15 a.m. with breakfast and a general meeting, followed by a closed to the public bond guaranty committee meeting at 8:30, an open to the public executive committee meeting at 10:30 and lunch at 11:30.