An effort to create thousands of higher paying jobs in the Jonesboro-metro area has the money to initiate an agreed upon five-year strategic plan. Jonesboro Unlimited, a private partnership development organization has raised 97% of the $3.7 million it needs to fund its economic development program, Momentum Jonesboro. At least 77 area businesses have or will contribute to the plan, Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Young told Talk Business & Politics.
“It’s about jobs, plain and simple,” Young said.
Local officials have identified five business sectors that will be targeted in the coming years. Agriculture, advanced manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and professional services such as engineering, IT, and accounting will be the focus, Young said.
Agriculture and related businesses are a natural fit for Jonesboro, he said. The area is dominated by rice, soybean, and cotton farms. Food processing has become a significant industry sector in the city, and it would make sense to expand on that base, he said. One area they will target in the manufacturing sector is pharmaceutical production. Most pharmaceuticals manufacture in the Northeast, but many companies are searching for new places to make their products, he said. The city has low utility rates that could entice these industries to move to Arkansas or encourage others to expand, he said.
Jonesboro’s location and the recent designations of I-555, and future I-57 as freeways could make the city a logistics titan in the mid-south, he said. Two of the area’s largest employers, St. Bernards and the NEA Baptist Health System, have transformed the city into a healthcare hub, with an array of clinics and other facilities that lure thousands to the city each day. Expansion on this front will be key to future economic development, Young said.
Professional services development will play a critical role in the coming years, as well, Young said. Engineering, IT, and accounting will be the primary focus. Part of this process will involve educating middle and high school students so they are aware of the expectations and opportunities of professions before they enter college or other post-secondary training. It’s often referred to as “career mapping.” Partnerships have been developed with the school systems, and some students have even helped to create the “delivery systems” that are used to inform other students. The rationale for including selected students in this process is simple, Young said.
“They know how to communicate better with their peers … the ways we communicate with each other and how we respond might be different than the ways these students communicate with each other,” he said.
A manufacturing camp will be held to show students how to work in different manufacturing environments. They won’t only be exposed to the duties and requirements to be welders, machinists and others workers. Nurses, accountants, and other professionals work in these places and earn high incomes, Young said.
The goal is to broaden the talented worker pipeline in the region. Existing and potential new businesses always want to know the educational level of the potential workforce, he said.
A new web site has been launched. The user friendly site has a lot of information for businesses that might be interested in locating in the city, Young said. Economic data, available buildings, and sites, incentives, living and working conditions, and other information will be provided on the site. Video testimonials from current business owners will be added to the site, soon, he said. A key part of the campaign will be an advertising and marketing blitz.
The goal is to attract 2,500 direct jobs, and 2,600 indirect jobs to the region. The goal is to create jobs that pay at least $42,000 per year.
Jonesboro has an unemployment rate of 2.5%, an all-time low for the city, but one problem public officials have acknowledged is a lack of good paying jobs. The city has a median household income of $41,688, more than 25% below the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost 24% of the city’s population lives at or below the federal poverty line. Jobs that pay $20,000 per year or less are the fastest growing jobs in the city.
In 2015, local officials developed a five-year plan to raise earnings. Avalanche Consulting was hired to study economic factors in the region. The study revealed the five sectors on which developers needed to focus.
Young is pleased the fundraising stage of the campaign is complete. The campaign won’t be completed until 2022, but one of the most ambitious economic development initiatives in the city is well on its way, he said.
“We’ve had a great response … our future is bright,” he said.