Workforce numbers improving in Franklin County

by The City Wire staff ( 8 views 

In an otherwise bleak economic climate during the last several years, Franklin County appears to stand out from the crowd.

Not only has unemployment dropped from a peak of 8% in January to 6.7% in April, the most recent month data was available, but the county has also seen an increase in sales tax revenue collections, according to Royce Gattis, first vice president and treasurer of the Ozark Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Our tax collections, and to me that's a barometer of how the economy is going, I predicted it would either meet or surpass the highest collection ever in 2008," said Gattis, who also serves as chairman of the chamber's economic development committee. "In 2012, we passed it in hospitality, A&P and use tax."

Ozark Mayor Carol Sneath said a lot had driven the recent economic development in and around the county's largest city and county seat.

"During that period of time, the I-40 travel center opened up. Also, the Woolsey Dental Clinic (opened) and I believe there was an operation south of the river, which is not in our jurisdiction, but that added some jobs."

Gattis said other businesses that have hired recently include the county's newest Dollar General as well as Bank of the Ozarks.

The county has also benefitted from student growth at the Ozark campus of Arkansas Tech University. Between 2006 and 2012, the campus saw an enrollment increase of 562% and the addition of 16 new academic and technical programs. In fall 2012, enrollment at Arkansas Tech-Ozark Campus rose above 2,000 students for the first time ever.

Even with the improvement in unemployment figures in just four months, Gattis said he and others within the chamber and the government are realistic about the ever-changing economic environment.

"Unless you look at what your previous workforce was and current, it takes about 80 people to move our unemployment rate 1% either way," he said.

Information from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services lists a labor force in Franklin County of 7,800 people. But, during 2009, the county had a workforce of 8,150 people, meaning from then to today, 350 people have left the working world.

"It's not because they moved out of the county, it's because they stopped looking for work," Gattis said.

To continue the growth the county has had and also create new jobs for those still looking and possibly bring those who have left the workforce back into the fold, he said innovative economic development would continue to be key.

There is a lot of interest in the area of exit 35 on Interstate 40, Gattis said, including the possibility of a hotel coming to the area. A hospitality-based business would be a logical addition to the area due to the high number of tourists that have started to visit Franklin County for music festivals each year.

Wakarusa, which featured acts such Of Monsters and Men and Snoop Lion (formerly Snoop Dog), concluded on Sunday (June 2) and Thunder on the Mountain, a country music festival featuring Toby Keith and Luke Bryan, will begin Thursday (June 6).

"The events that we've tried to have to bring visitors into Ozark have been very successful," Gattis said. "(Wakarusa) brings about 20,000 people into the county. The other music festivals (are) about 8,000-10,000 for their three-day events."

Sneath said the increase in tax collection due to the festivals resulted in about a 10% increase in tax collection every year.

"You have to remember that a lot of the facilities have been developed up at the venue itself," she said. "They have more facilities to accommodate those individuals. The city does not get an impact on that, but the county does get an impact on that."

Franklin County as a destination for music and festivals is somewhat new, with Wakarusa taking place in the area for about five years, according to Gattis, though he said any further growth from those festivals may be limited in future years.

"They've expanded the events, but Wakarusa itself, they limit the tickets. There won't be any new growth in that. They are selling the limits of tickets each year. There's a ceiling. It is put in place by the organization that promotes it and the owners of the venue. It's just a common-sense decision that it will handle X number of people that's where they'll cut it off."

While the county may not be able to further capitalize off of the music festivals, they are trying to make Franklin County a destination worth visiting at other times of the year.

Gattis said a riverfront development along the banks of the Arkansas River is in the works, in addition to other development in downtown Ozark. In addition, he notes an expansion of Post Winery in Altus as a tourist attraction and an economic stimulator.

To keep up with expected future growth, Sneath said a new road between Ozark High School and Highway 23 was spurring interest.

"We have had some developers make some inquiries in the area in regards to new housing. That's something Ozark desperately needs, whether rentals or new homes."

She said plants in the area have expanded operations or are planning to, such as Baldor Electric Co. and Great Lakes Carbon, which she said would be making a $26 million expansion to its Ozark facility and should bring with it additional jobs, though she said she could not quote numbers until details are finalized.

With all of the growth during the last several years, Gattis has expressed excitement at the future. Just since January, the county has added 75 workers to the overall labor force and he expects that to continue.

"People want to be part of a winning team and we have a winning team now," he said.

Sneath echoed those sentiments, saying Ozark and Franklin County would continue to move forward.

"Just keep an eye on us. We're going to continue to grow."