Small business growth helps Crawford County

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 106 views 

It's been a mixed bag for Crawford County's economy this year, with a loss of one major employer even while other employers have been expanding.

The year got off to a rough start in February when Allens Canning Company announced that it would close its canning operation in Van Buren, relocating it to Siloam Springs. The result was a loss of 150 jobs.

While the closure of the facility left a human toll in lost jobs, it also put a dent in unexpected areas, such as municipal utilities. Van Buren Municipal Utilities Director Steve Dufresne said the company consumed as much as 900,000 gallons of water per day, resulting in about $1 million in annual business.

Even though the year may have started with bleak prospects, a $4 million expansion project announced in June at Tankersley Food Service in the Van Buren Industrial Park showed that the local economy was not completely in a slump.

In addition to adding more than 28,000-square feet of freezer space, the company will hire between 20 and 40 additional workers to man the expanded facility. At the time, Drew Williams of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said business expansion was the big driver of the state's economy.

"We know that about 80% of our job creation is done through existing businesses retention," he said. "We know that's true in Arkansas and the rest of the country."

Jackie Krutsch, executive director of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said she is seeing it all across the economy – not only Van Buren, but all of Crawford County.

"I just think a lot of smaller businesses and some really large businesses are expanding in what I would say are ways that aren't typically covered by the media – adding three people, seven people, 10 people. A lot of times, they don't even tell us."

To the east of Van Buren, Alma Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lisa Norris said expanding businesses have also been helping the economy of her community, which lies about 20 minutes northeast of Fort Smith and 45 minutes south of Fayetteville.

A specific example she points to is Alma Healthcare and Rehabilitation, which is expanding its facility just off of Interstate 40.

"They're looking to hire at least 20 people. I don't know the average wage, but the majority of jobs they're looking to hire are CNA-type jobs (certified nursing assistants). But they are also looking for speech and physical therapists, a wide range of jobs that are going to be opening. But the majority will be CNA-type jobs."

With the expansions that have taken place, unemployment in the county has dipped considerably lower for the month of June, the most recent month data was available, compared to the peak of the county's unemployment.

In June, the rate was 7.7% unemployed, with 2,175 without jobs. The number of people in the labor force, or those wanting a job, stood at 28,300, with 26,125 currently employed. By contrast, February 2011 saw an unemployment rate of 9.3%, with 2,575 individuals out of a job. The labor force was smaller at that time, with only 27,850 wanting a job and 25,275 employed.

Asked how the county will sustain its more positive numbers as of late, Krutsch said she believes the service sector is where the growth will be.

"In Van Buren, the service sector 10 years ago wasn't really here and now one of our largest employers is Experian with close to 500 employees. I think future growth will be made up of service sector, but will also continue to be a mix (of service sector and manufacturing jobs)."

She said companies like Bekaert Corporation have recently added jobs and facility space, as has Arkansas Poly, a plastic packing manufacturer. With the expansion from those two companies, she thinks it shows the possible resurgence of manufacturing jobs in the county.

The one loss Krutsch said will not hurt the county is the relocation of the HMA service center from Van Buren to Fort Smith, bringing with it possibly hundreds of new jobs. If all goes according to plan and the expansion goes through, the company will be leaving its Van Buren facility behind. But the benefit of the added jobs to the Fort Smith area economy will still benefit Van Buren, she said.

"We didn't see it as job losses. They have roughly 100 people (already working) there and are adding another 300 for a service center. There will be others who live here in Van Buren and Crawford County who drive the 12 minutes to the Phoenix Expo (Center, where the new HMA service center will be housed). We worked with the Fort Smith Chamber in searching for a location and we celebrate that."