Logan County recovering from 2008 hit

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 117 views 

Unlike most counties across the state, when the Great Recession hit, Logan County took a one-two punch to the gut.

Not only was the recession crippling to the region's economy, but shortly after the recession began, Logan County lost almost 10% of its jobs in one crippling blow.

"In the spring of 2008, we had our largest employer burn," said Stacey McCollough, executive director of the Booneville Development Corporation and South Logan County Chamber of Commerce.

The loss of the Cargill factory on Easter Sunday 2008 left the county with a loss of 820 jobs and no real way to bring those jobs back, as Cargill decided to move production elsewhere and not rebuild, McCollough said.

"We were in the depths of recession, so we saw this exodus (of workers and population) prior to 2010," he said. "In fact, our school in Booneville, we lost 250 students since the fire over a three year period."

But one area where Logan County got lucky, McCollough said, was with the 2007 opening of Rockline Industries. The Wisconsin-based manufacturer produces baby wipes and disposable wash clothes at their Logan County plant, he said.

"When they moved here, they had four employees come down (from Wisconsin)," McCollough said. "The rest of the 260 (person workforce) has been hired right here."

The timing of the Rockline plant was a God-send, he said.

"It was a miracle they came when they did. They had a ready-made (labor force) hungry for a job,” McCollough said.

At the peak of the area's tough economic times, the county was suffering from 9.6% unemployment in January 2010, according to numbers provided by the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.

The numbers have fluctuated since, but appear to have stabilized this year. In April 2013, the most recent month figures were available, the unemployment rate had dropped to 7.2%. But unlike other counties which had a drop in the overall labor force at the same time as a drop in unemployment figures, Logan County actually has a larger labor force today than they did at the peak of its unemployment, with 9,700 people in the work force today versus 9,650 in January 2010.

Linda Hixson, executive director of the Paris Area Chamber of Commerce, said many companies, such as Rockline, have found Logan County to be the perfect place to do business.

"Our existing businesses, factories especially, have maintained or expanded and then companies like Wald Wood started with a small line here and now have moved their entire operation from Van Buren to here, so we're very proud of that."

Hixson said she and the rest of the business community across Logan County have made a concerted effort to focus not only on business, but on tourism, as an economic driver for the area.

"We've really ramped up to think about the tourism that comes through here and to try to attract those people who are vacationing here to come back here and open a business or retire."

Doing business in Logan County, she said, is really like a "double-sided street for economic development for industry, manufacturing, retail, and place."

"We say, 'Come for a visit, stay for a lifetime.' We live like we're on a vacation."

She said to have not only kept businesses but to get those businesses to expand and get new businesses to come to the area has involved more than just herself or McCollough.

"It's a combination of things to maintain through these economic times and maybe just some luck," she said.

To increase tourism to the county, namely Mt. Magazine, Hixson said the Paris Area Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the Tri-Peaks Mountain Tourism Association, which has helped to "get the word out to people that we exist."

The Paris and Booneville Chambers have also found the Fort Smith Regional Alliance to be a great asset.

"I think our association with people of that caliber have been very important to us," Hixson said. "They have treated us and every other chamber in the area well and include us and it is very important to build relationships between all of these different entities that can give us some leads or send someone our way."

McCollough echoed those sentiments, adding that pooling resources was vital to growth.

"We have a great relationship between the county, cities and ourselves, the Petit Jean Regional Foundation, the Regional Alliance."

He said using the connections forged across the Fort Smith Regional Alliance, which encompasses Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Sebastian and Scott Counties in Arkansas and LeFlore and Sequoyah Counties in Oklahoma, the connected Chambers and other economic organizations are able to work together to bring jobs to the region, which has brought Logan County back from the brink of economic disaster in a very short period of time.

With Logan County being comprised entirely of small communities with populations less than 4,000 people, working as a community is the only way business will prosper, he said.

"You'll not see someone saying, 'I did this or that.' We work together."

That has paid off. Not only is Rockline employing 260, but Cloyes Gear, another manufacturer in Logan County, employees about 800, according to Hixson. Cloyes has returned to growth as the national auto industry recovered.

Hixson said other top employers include Paris Health and Rehab (about 125 employees), Stark Manufacturing (150+), Paris Public Schools (200+), Tyson Animal Foods in Scranton (200-300) and Wald Wood (20).

And the growth is not expected to stop anytime soon, Hixson said, adding that a New OReilly Auto Parts would soon open, as would other retailers tied to general merchandise and area tourism, which is an economic driver during the Summer months.

"We are being looked at on a continual basis," she said. "Everyone needs to remember that when you meet a stranger, it may be a (corporate) hunter from who knows where."