Pocahontas, Randolph County ready for job and wage growth

by George Jared ([email protected]) 673 views 

Rural cities and counties in Northeast Arkansas have been among the poorest areas of the South for many generations. Jobs are sparse, earnings are relatively low, and educational opportunities have been few. Civic and business leaders think a change may be on the horizon in Randolph County and in its seat, Pocahontas.

Peco Foods Inc. opened a $165 million poultry processing plant last year in the town that spans the Ozark Mountains in its western districts, and the flat row crop fields of the Mississippi Delta to its east. The company has already hired 950 workers, and it will hire several hundred more before it’s finished, Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim Scott told Talk Business & Politics.

“It’s a game changer in this part of the state, no question,” Scott said. “It instantly became our largest employer in Randolph County. We’ve never had something like this happen here.”

The county’s jobless rate was 4.9% in December, with an estimated labor force of 6,478. The rate rose from 4.2% in November

Industrial and retail prospects are plentiful, and companies in the town of more than 6,600 are growing, Scott said. Pocahontas Aluminum Company recently bought an 110,000-square-foot building in the city’s industrial park from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for $400,000. The company will expand its worker base from 154 to 200 in the next two years, according to information released. The company makes aluminum doors, windows, and other products.

One of the main problems in Randolph County and the surrounding areas is median income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income in Pocahontas was about $30,000 in 2010. Income levels have steadily climbed in the last two years, and the median income in Pocahontas is $33,500, according to the chamber.

Scott thinks once Peco is fully staffed the income levels in the county will rise more. The company reportedly pays its workers $10.86, but wages increase significantly once a worker completes their first 90 days. Annual salaries for average workers in the plant will likely range from $26,727 to $44,434, according to payscale.com.

Peco will also impact the area’s retail sector, Scott said. In 2013, it was estimated the retail sector in Pocahontas generated $124 million. The sector has a $135 million capacity, Scott said, and that estimate was arrived at before Peco announced the plant. Scott said the city’s retail sector’s potential could top $150 million by the end of 2018.

“New retailers are coming, and they definitely want to be here,” Scott said.

The city could also experience population growth as a result of economic growth. In the coming years Pocahontas could top more than 8,000 residents, according to estimates. An expanded tax base, more consumers, and sustained job growth, Scott said.

Peco Foods is the largest single employer in the city followed by the Pocahontas School District (251 workers), Walmart U.S. (220 workers), Black River Technical College (193 workers) Five Rivers Medical Center (171), and Pocahontas Aluminum. BRTC is consistently ranked as one of the top two-year colleges in the state, and it’s a critical tool in industrial recruitment, Scott said.

“Vocational training and access to it are vital in industrial recruitment,” he said.

Another key sector in Randolph County’s economy is tourism. In 2015, tourists spent $18.556 million in travel expenses, according to the Arkansas Department of Tourism. Travel generated payroll topped $2.234 million, and it supported 132 jobs. State tourism sales tax receipts topped $1.1 million.

Randolph County’s tourism sector is dominated by the rivers, dense woods, and flat, water covered fields, Scott said. Thousands of hunters flock to the county each year to hunt deer, duck, and other animals, he said. The multi-million hunting lodges, Buck Hollow and Stan Jones Mallard Lodge lure high paying clients from around the world, Scott said. A third unnamed lodge has opened on the outskirts of Pocahontas. Professional athletes, actors, business leaders, and others are among their clientele.

Randolph County is also the only county in the state with five navigable rivers. The rivers attract fishermen, canoe enthusiasts, campers, and others, Scott said. How many tourists visit the county with a little more than 18,600 residents hasn’t been calculated, Scott said. It’s a number officials will need to pay closer attention to in the future, he said.

Agriculture still dominates the region in economic importance. Randolph County agriculture products topped $79.6 million in market value, and total agriculture production and related businesses accounted for 35% of the county’s economic activity, according to a 2015 report released by the University of Arkansas. Harvested cropland was more than 81,929 acres. About 78% of the agriculture market in the county was tied to row crop production, while the rest was tied to livestock production.

Those numbers could change significantly in the next couple of years. Hundreds of chicken houses have been built around the county since that report was released, Scott said. Those chicken houses are vital to Peco’s operations. Feed for the chickens will also spur further agriculture economic activity, he said.

The numbers in all economic sectors look promising as 2017 unfolds, Scott said. For a city and county that has lost hundreds, if not thousands of jobs in the last 15 years as light industrial manufacturers opted to move their operations elsewhere, the change is welcome, he said.

“It’s definitely our turn … we’ve been patient,” Scott said. “We’ve had our share of losses and failures. People are starting to take note Randolph County.”