A few months do not make a trend, but Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp is hoping recent building permit numbers are a sign business is improving in his hometown.
In a city with less than 5,000 people, there are $3.7 million in ongoing building projects, according to city numbers. Those projects include a new TacoBell, and Tractor Supply Company. Both are expected to open by mid-October, and will add sales tax revenue and more importantly, jobs, to the local economy, Snapp told Talk Business & Politics.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Snapp said. “This is the most economic activity we’ve had in this town in a longtime. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue it.”
The Taco Bell will employ 45 people, and will have a yearly projected payroll of at least $750,000, annually, according to numbers released. It will add about $25,000 to the city’s sales tax coffers in its first year of operation, according to projections. It will also haul in about $12,000 in property taxes.
An 18,000-square-foot portion of the former Walmart store on U.S. 67B is under renovation for Tractor Supply Company. Work should be finished in the coming weeks, it could open in September, and will employ at least 25 workers, Snapp said.
An out-of-state investor has contemplated building a large truck stop in or around the Portia area on U.S. 63 near the intersection with U.S. 412, Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman told Talk Business & Politics. If the truck stop is built, it could add another 45 to 50 jobs to the area and further spur sales tax numbers, the judge said.
Just a few miles outside of Walnut Ridge, Peco Foods Inc. is building a massive poultry processing plant that will employ more than 1,000 workers, and American Silica LLC will open its $48 million hydraulic fracturing sand plant in the coming months.
Another problem is looming in the area, however.
“Pretty soon you’ll be able to find a job within 15 miles of Walnut Ridge if you want to,” the mayor said. “A major problem we’ve had, and it’s only going to get worse, is housing.”
Housing, especially apartments, are desperately needed, Snapp said. The city and the county have been in economic decline for many years, and it’s hard to compel investors to build more houses and apartments when the unemployment rate in the county has hovered at or above 8% for several years, and wages have been stagnant.
As this potential wave of new jobs and businesses sets in, the risks will hopefully lessen, and developers will be able to build, and expand the economy further, the mayor added.
At least one or more major retailer may open shop in the Lawrence County’s seat, and a announcement could happen within the next month, Snapp said. A possible partnership with Arkansas State University to bring a training facility to the area could have a mammoth impact on the local economy, and an industrial prospect that is looking to hire 150 workers is examining sites in and around the city, according to information released.
“It’s an exciting time,” Snapp said. “It’s an important time. We’ve got more than enough to do.”
Unemployment rates, the number of people without a job, and the number of people who have a job support the mayor’s hypothesis about the growing jobs market in Lawrence County, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2009, the unemployment rate in the county was 9.2% and grew to 9.9% by 2011, according to numbers released. Those rates held until 2014 when it fell to 7.3%, and in 2015 it dropped to 6.3%, the lowest in almost a decade.
The number of unemployed workers in the county dropped from 673 workers in 2009 to 440 workers without jobs in 2015. At least 6,594 county residents had jobs in 2015, a four-year high.
Lawrence County has a population of about 17,000 as of 2015. It’s centrally located in Northeast Arkansas. Roughly half the county is in the Ozark foothills, while the other half is nestled in the Mississippi River Delta. Walnut Ridge is the county seat.