It was a night full of data that may seem run of the mill or even ordinary to some. But according to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock economist who compiled the information presented Monday (Sept. 22), it is laying the groundwork for what will be Van Buren and the surrounding region's strategic economic plan.
The data compiled by the UALR Center for Economic Development Education at the Institute for Economic Advancement gave the Van Buren City Council an "objective measurement of where we are right now," UALR economist Mark Goodman said.
The first data points presented by Goodman showed as a whole, Crawford County performs well in areas such as agriculture, oil and gas extraction, construction, manufacturing, and transportation and warehousing.
But in the same data set, Goodman was able to show the county underperforming the 2013 "national location quotient" in areas such as utilities, information, finance and insurance, real estate, and health care. All of the previously mentioned economic sectors fell below the national quotient of 1%, indicating an underperformance by the county in those areas.
While some of the data points such as healthcare appear to be underperforming, it is not that the county is necessarily lacking in quality medical care. Instead, Goodman said Sebastian County is performing above the national quotient, coming in at 1.3%. For this reason, he said it was important for Crawford County to not necessarily attempt to build large medical centers to compete with a much larger market across the river, but instead to work on finding areas within healthcare where the county could support and compliment smaller medical sectors.
Goodman also presented population leakage figures, with data indicating the county was taking in additional business in areas such as hardware stores and but losing business of Crawford County residents in areas such as automotive sales, with an estimated 31,972 residents leaving the county to purchase a new car in 2012. According to UALR's data, that means $39.736 million in auto sales go to other counties each year.
While the large amounts of data presented Monday could seem overwhelming, Goodman noted that this is the type of data that helps local entrepreneurs as well as larger national companies determine whether to locate in Van Buren and elsewhere in Crawford County.
"This is the kind of information … again, if someone is looking at our community, they're asking about this kind of stuff. They expect an inventory.”
The data presented by Goodman also showed that crime in Van Buren was decreasing, which he noted appeared to follow a trend of improved unemployment numbers since 2010. He said a "good economy heals many things," but just because the unemployment number is dropping, Goodman's own figures still indicated struggles with the city's economic recovery.
While the population of Crawford County increased 16.34% from 2000 to 2010 (the most recent census years), the number of people able to work within the county only increased by 9.94% from 2003 to 2012 (the most recent years data was available). During that same period, the number of employed only increased 14.49%. And from 2008 (the start of the Great Recession) to 2012, the the labor force actually fell 3.01% as people dropped out of the labor force entirely, either quitting their pursuit of looking for work, retiring or going on some sort of government assistance.
The number of people receiving some sort of government assistance – social security, unemployment, disability, welfare or other supplemental assistance – has increased from 2007 to 2011, going from 23.66% of total transfer receipts to 28.41%. The data presented, while mixed, provided city leaders with hope as they look to the future and work to develop an economic strategy in partnership with the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce.
"This is a major step forward in the comprehensive planning for our community," Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman said. "Before we develop the strategy, we need to first know where we are and we will see in this assessment (where) we have strengths and also where we have opportunities.”
Lisa Huckelbury, chairman of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce Board, called the presentation Monday night the start of a “process."
"Van Buren is poised to take the next bold step in preparing a strategic plan that guides our Economic and Community Development path," she said. "It's not an end product, but rather a process that entails considerable community self-evaluation, agreement on specific courses of action with measurable outcomes, and the ability to change as new conditions alter the course."
The next step, Goodman said, is more participatory and said it would begin Tuesday (Sept. 23) with meetings involving the community in determining what it wants as a part of the city's economic plan and UALR subsequently working with the city and chamber to determine how to meet those goals for improvement.
Development of the city and chamber's economic plan could be complete by early summer 2015, Goodman added.