Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority seeks director, new funding partners

by George Jared ( 49 views 

A swath of land along the Hoxie/Walnut Ridge city line abuts U.S. 63. This rare spot has access to two major rail lines, Union-Pacific, and BNSF, connections to an interstate highway and two other four-lane highways, access to the second largest airport in Arkansas in terms of runway square footage, and has highway connections to Little Rock, Dallas, Memphis, and other regional trade hubs.

There are few spots in the country that have this type of transportation access, according to state and local officials.

For years, the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority has tried to market the area with no luck. The spot is privately owned by multiple land owners, and there is no money to make infrastructure improvements even if a deal for the land could be brokered, NARIFA Board Chairman Scott Trammel told Talk Business & Politics.

“It’s a unique site, no doubt about it,” Trammel said.

NARIFA, an economic development organization comprised of the cities of Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge, Corning, and Randolph and Lawrence counties, was formed in 2009. At one point Hoxie and Clay County were members, but financial constraints led them to cease their memberships. Each member pays $10,000 per year, and has three board members. It’s been without a director this year following former Director Wayne Gearhart’s retirement in January.

The organization pushed the Hoxie/Walnut Ridge site in the first few years of its existence. A deal to land Integrated Renewable Resources, a railroad tie company was nearly completed in 2011, but the deal fell through. After that, NARIFA turned its attentions to Peco Foods. The poultry giant decided to build a $200 million processing plant and hatchery in Pocahontas and a feed mill in Corning in 2014. When the operation is at capacity, it will create 1,400 jobs in the region. NARIFA executive assistant Deonne Donner told Talk Business & Politics. The organization helps Peco, the eighth largest poultry producer in the country, with job fairs, she said.

“It’s mind blowing to be a part of a project like this,” Donner said.

Finding a new director is critical, Trammel said. Funds are the main problem. NARIFA has about $70,000 in its coffers, and the revenue stream with its membership equates to $50,000 per year, Trammel said. Travel expenses and other office costs, including Donner’s salary have to be taken into consideration, he said. The organization would also like to get to a point where it can offer incentives to potential job creators, he said.

“We’re limited by our funding … it’s simple math,” Trammel said.

Candidates have been offered the job, but they declined, Donner said. There are no candidates at this time with the right skill sets to do the job, Trammel said. Board members are hopeful a director will be in place by the end of the year.

The new director will hopefully be able to bring Clay County, and possibly the city of Piggott into the fold, Trammel said. Hoxie is dealing with financial troubles, and probably won’t be able to return to NARIFA in 2017. Jackson, Sharp, and other adjacent counties and cities might also be viable partners in the future, officials said.

Lawrence and Randolph counties had unemployment rates above 10% as the Great Recession ravaged the region when the Authority was formed in 2009. Since its inception, the unemployment rate in both counties has dropped to 5.3% in Randolph County and 5.1% in Lawrence County in July, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Corning is in Clay County which had an unemployment rate of 6% in July.

Jobs are more available, but income levels must be improved with better paying jobs, Trammel said. Lawrence County residents have a median income of $34,916, and Randolph County residents have a median income of $37,000, according to 2014 census data. Those figures are below state and national averages, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

No major projects are in the works, but NARIFA is working with the city of Pocahontas to better prepare it to meet with potential job creators, Donner said. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission has a preparatory program to train communities how to handle prospective employers. A “mock” visit will be held in Pocahontas in the near future, she said.

There are many challenges NARIFA will have to navigate in the future, Trammel said. Despite these issues, a regional approach to economic development is vital in this part of the state, he said.

“We are extremely pleased with our partners and the work we’ve been able to do,” he said.