Jonesboro’s economy continues strong growth in first quarter, local officials say more is possible

by George Jared ([email protected]) 490 views 

Jonesboro’s metro economy began 2016 on a solid note, especially in terms of jobs and sales tax growth, according to The Compass Report.

Lower unemployment numbers, job creation, sales and use tax increases, strong building permit numbers, and other positive economic indicators earned Northeast Arkansas’ hub city a B+ rating from the first quarter 2016 The Compass Report. The city and surrounding region received the second highest grade issued by the report. Fort Smith, Northwest, and Central Arkansas are the other regions covered.

At least 2,300 new jobs were generated from March 2015 to the same month this year, and the unemployment rate dropped seven-tenths of a point from the beginning of the year to 3.5% in March. Gross sales tax and use collections grew to $1.9 million in Craighead and Poinsett counties in March, a nearly $150,000 increase, an 8.1% hike from the previous year. Housing permit valuations soared from about $3.9 million in March 2015, to $5.5 million in March of this year, according to numbers released.

The quarterly Compass Report is managed by Talk Business & Politics, and is sponsored by Lowell-based Zero Mountain Logistics, a subsidiary of Fort Smith-based Zero Mountain Inc. The report is the only independent analysis of economic conditions in four Arkansas metro areas – Central Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith metro, and the Jonesboro metro. Underwriting support of The Compass Report is also provided by Cox Communications and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

A key factor in understanding The Compass is in understanding the “grading” approach used to measure the current and leading economic indicators. The strategy is to place the most recent data in historical context. Average values for the percent change over the referenced time period were calculated, as were standard deviations for each measure. The more similar current values are to historic averages the more likely the indicator grade is to be a “C.”

The farther away the observed value, as measured by the standard deviation of the data, the more divergent the grade from “C.” In other words, “C” reflects no change in economic activity. The grades “B” or “A” indicate improvement above the historical average, and “D” and “F” indicate a decline in economic activity compared to the historical average.

Local officials were pleased with the numbers, but many realize there is still work to do, Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mark Young told Talk Business and Politics. A new strategic plan to target and lure specific job creators was initiated at the beginning of the year, he said. Sectors such as agriculture business, healthcare, manufacturing, and logistics have been targeted, he said.

“We’re obviously pleased with the strong economic numbers for our city and region,” Young said. “But, we’re always focused on bring more jobs and better opportunities to this part of the state.”

Delta Center for Economic Development Executive Director Shawnie Carrier agreed with Young’s assessment. Jonesboro has enjoyed historically low unemployment in recent years, and it’s a testament to the hard work put in by civic leaders and the business community to bring jobs to the area, she said.

“There’s a plethora of jobs out there,” she said.

More has to be done, she said. Wage stagnation continues to be an issue, and the area’s workforce still needs greater access to education and workforce training, she said. Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin shared Carrier’s sentiments.

“What we want to do next is recruit industry with higher paying jobs,” the mayor said.

A change in the way businesses decide where to locate industries is livability, Carrier said. The old formula was to provide tax breaks, land, and other incentives. That might be coupled with good roads, access to an airport, or rail lines, and other infrastructure concessions. Potential employers now examine livability for employees, she said. Quality of life factors such as entertainment venues, cultural institutions such as museums, parks, golf courses, access to sidewalks, public transportation, and other things that make a place more enjoyable to live are now considered, she said.

“Livability is probably one of the top three considerations,” she said.

Other indicators detailed in The Compass Report reflect how well the city’s economy has performed this year.

The number of unemployed workers in the city has dropped from 3,128 to 2,181, in the last year. Several key employment sectors, such as service, goods producers, and non-farm employment have all enjoyed moderate gains during the first three months of the year, according to the report.

Jeff Collins, the economist for Talk Business & Politics who gathers data used in The Compass Report, said the region is bucking the trend with respect to manufacturing jobs.

“Employment conditions in the metro are very good relative to the state and most other metro areas. The employment data are particularly encouraging given the erosion of manufacturing employment prevalent across many metros,” wrote Collins, who is also a former director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.