The second largest city and county in Northeast Arkansas both had sharp declines in unemployment rates and the number of unemployed workers since January, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Paragould had an unemployment rate of 5.1% in January, but it dropped to 4% by October. Greene County’s rate declined from 5% to 4% during the same time frame, a 20% drop. Paragould Chamber of Commerce CEO Sue McGowan told Talk Business & Politics a strong jobs market, fueled by recent commercial business additions and expansions by area industries contributed to the growth.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the landscape of this community this year,” McGowan said. “We had a hotel (Hampton Inn) open and a Neighborhood Walmart also opened.”
American Railcar Industries, one of the two largest employers in Greene County, announced in August it would expand its nearly 1,200 employee workforce by 60 more workers. Corbitt Manufacturing, a component maker operation within ARI, opened a $3.5 million facility to provide components to ARI’s plants in Paragould and Marmaduke.
Tenneco, a Chicago-based company that makes shock absorbers, struts, and other auto parts, employs about 1,200 employees at its Paragould plant. In 2015, the company had $8.2 billion in global sales, according to published reports. The Paragould facility primarily builds shocks.
Other statistics reported by the Department of Labor indicated a positive growth pattern, but a few were negative as well. The raw number of unemployed workers in Paragould dropped nearly 18% to 524 from January to October, and Greene County’s fell 20% to 793 seeking work.
The civilian labor forces in the city and county also dropped. Paragould’s civilian labor force fell from 12,606 to 12,444, while the county’s slid from 20,219 to 19,938 during the same timeframe. The median income in Paragould was $40,340 in 2015, nearly 28% below the national median income average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Income levels may be lower, but so is the cost of living, McGowan said. Paragould’s cost of living received an 82.2% grade from Sterling’s Best Places to Live. The U.S. average is 100. The grade is based on housing, food, transportation, health, and other costs. Nearby Jonesboro had an 86.6% rating from the index.
“Wages are an issue we need to work on, but it’s significantly cheaper to live here,” she said.
Paragould and Greene County have taken proactive steps to protect the region’s growing economy, McGowan said. Local industries have partnered with Black River Technical College to form the Greene County Industrial Training Consortium. GCITC provides worker training for industries throughout the area, McGowan said.
“It’s really been a benefit to our local industries … a lot of workers used to have to travel to receive specialized training in particular fields. Now they can stay home and do it here,” she said.
City and county officials are working to build an industrial site. A swath of land west of Paragould along the U.S. 412 bypass has been targeted for a site, McGowan said. It’s still in the planning stages, but officials hope to have an industrial site sometime in the next year, she said.
Paragould is the second largest city in Northeast Arkansas, behind Jonesboro. There are 27,900 residents in the city, according to a 2015 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s the county seat in Greene County. The Paragould School District and the Greene County Tech School District are the two primary school districts in the area.
Black River Technical College, based in Pocahontas, operates a campus in Paragould. Crowley Ridge College, a private Christian liberal arts college is also located in Greene County’s seat.
The largest employers in Paragould in addition to ARI and Tenneco are Anchor Industries, Arkansas Methodist Medical Center, Utility Trailer Manufacturing, Darling Store Fixtures, Walmart, and the two school districts.