LeFlore County faces ‘very gradual’ growth

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 113 views 

Ask just about anyone across LeFlore County and they will tell you the economy has been rocky in the county for the last few years.

But according to Karen Wages, chief executive officer of the Poteau Chamber of Commerce, there is hope on the horizon.

"Our unemployment is an improvement over the last several months," she said.

At the peak of recession unemployment in the county was hovering at or above 10%, according to Wages.

January 2013 statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most current figures available, place the workforce in LeFlore County at 20,477 workers. Of those, 1,977 are unemployed, resulting in an unemployment rate of 9.7%.

Compared to June 2006, when LeFlore County's workforce was at its highest in the last decade, 22,131 people were part of the workforce, with only 1,208 classified as unemployed, or 5.5%.

According to Wages, what has kept the unemployment number high and economic growth stagnant has been the number of employees to be laid off across the county.

"We lost Bremner, a factory here that laid off over 400 people and we got hit hard by the Whirlpool closure," she said.

Wages said any bad economic news in Fort Smith would always have a negative impact on LeFlore County due to the fact that more than 60% of the county's workforce commutes to Fort Smith each day.

Lance Smith, chairman of the LeFlore County Board of Commissioners, said any recovery in the county is going to be a slow process, meaning the next year may remain stale in regards to economic growth.

"We were one of the last places in the country that felt this last economic downfall that we had and I'm sure we'll be one of the last to feel the full effects, as well," he said. "(Recovery) is gradual, but very gradual."

Not all hope is lost, though.

Wages said other businesses in the county that had openings were able to quickly fill the positions with skilled workers laid off from the two factories, which helped keep the unemployment figure from going higher than it's current 9.7%.

Sure to help with lower the unemployment rate is Ouro Mining Inc. The company said on its website that it plans to expand mining operations in both LeFlore County and Scott County in Arkansas in what they are calling "The Heavener Coking Coal Project."

Reports have indicated the project could result in more than 400 jobs in the area.

There is also growth taking place in Poteau, the seat of the county, Wages said.

"We're doing what we can to let people know Poteau is thriving. We have a new convention center and Carl Albert (State College) is expanding," she said. "Dirt is still being turned here."

She said getting good news out to the public about projects in the city is important, especially during tough economic times.

Wages also mentioned the addition of a new $3.3 million LeFlore County Health Department, which will replace the department's current facility that has seen problems with animals and reptiles roaming the halls.

The mention of government growth was no mistake by Wages. The government, whether local, state or federal, plays a large role in the economy of LeFlore County.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, of nearly 20,000 employed individuals in the county, more than 5,100 are employed in some sort of government position.

Standing out from the crowd in a down economy is the Choctaw Nation, which runs a casino and resort along the Arkansas border in Pocola.

The casino, which is in the midst of a $60 million expansion, has been steadily adding positions at its facility as it approaches completion later this spring.

Once completed, close to 350 jobs will have been added. The casino and resort will also support nearly 850 jobs in the Fort Smith and LeFlore County region.

In a statement in November 2012, Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory Pyle said the expansion would bring first-class entertainment to the area.

"We're proud to finally open the doors to this beautiful new casino floor, and we know this multi-million dollar project will benefit our guests, as well as the southeast Oklahoma and the (Fort Smith) River Valley region."

Of the hundreds of Choctaw Nation employees, a vast majority live in LeFlore County, according to Choctaw Nation's marketing and administrative assistant Verree Shaw.

"There are 724 Choctaw Nation employees living in LeFlore County," she said.

And much like the local, state and federal government, the Choctaw Nation has employees across many sectors, according to Shaw.

These include gaming facilities in Poteau and Pocola, an assisted living center in Poteau, travel plazas, drug rehabilitation facilities and community centers in Smithville, Talihina, Sprio and Poteau.

For the county to continue to see growth and come out of its unemployment slump, Smith said cooperation with groups, such as the Choctaw Nation and the Fort Smith Regional Alliance, would be key.

"I think it's beneficial," he said. "If you get that many people together with the backgrounds in certain areas, there's bound to be good ideas that come about from certain meetings. Anything we get to benefit the county and surrounding areas is a benefit for us."

He added that growth would return in other industries outside of gaming.

"We have good schools, good fire protection, good law enforcement and we have a good hospital and EMS," he said. "We have a lot of things going to for us, we just have to build upon those things."