Higher-paying jobs ‘momentum’ ahead of schedule in Jonesboro

by George Jared ([email protected]) 314 views 

Jonesboro Unlimited’s campaign to bring higher paying jobs to Northeast Arkansas got off to a fast start in 2017.

“Momentum Jonesboro” had hoped to report on 5,153 new jobs by 2021 in five targeted sectors. Last year 1,268 jobs were created in those sectors, and investors pumped $107.813 million worth of capital into those sectors, Jonesboro Unlimited Chairman Chris Barber told Talk Business & Politics.

“We’re off to a great start. … We are not only going to meet our goals, we’re going to exceed them,” he said.

Wage growth has been an issue in Northeast Arkansas’ largest city. The median income is $41,688, about 25% the national average. It’s also below the state average. The five targeted sectors – healthcare, manufacturing, professional services, logistics, and agriculture – pay higher than the median income in the city, Jonesboro Unlimited President Mark Young told Talk Business & Politics. An influx of higher paying jobs will be the key in changing the wage disparity, said Young, who is also head of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Healthcare was the leading sector last year with 597 jobs created. It was followed by manufacturing with 549 new jobs, and professional services added 64. Logistics grew by 34 new jobs, and agriculture added 24.

The campaign began with a mass newsletter email blast to about 500 companies, Jonesboro Unlimited Director of Communications Craig Rickert said. Constant Contact was hired to oversee the blast, and it provided data about the companies that opened the email, he said.

It’s efforts like this that civic and business officials hope will lead the city to land more companies such as Hefei Risever Machinery Co. (Risever). The Chinese-based company announced in October it will invest $20 million to build a facility inside the Craighead Technology Park in Jonesboro. The plant will employ 130 workers when operational, and the average wage will be $18 per hour. It’s slated to open in the spring or summer of 2019. It’s the first U.S. plant to be built by Risever. The city beat out 69 other cities to land the plant, Rickert said.

The campaign recently ventured into social media. It now has Facebook, Twitter, and Linkdin accounts, he said. In addition to hiring Rickert, JU hired Mike Downing in 2017 to be its vice president of economic development. Downing is the former director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

In 2018, the organization plans to meet with site consultants to assess what the area has to offer companies, Barber said. At least two site consultant events will be held. In April, Officials will make a trip to Greenville, S.C. The city is similar in size to Jonesboro and has become a development beacon around the country.

Greenville has been able to grow their professional worker base, raise income, and provide a high quality of life standard, Barber said. Retaining and attracting young, professional workers will be a key element in economic growth in the city, he said. Bike trails, arts and culture, and other quality of life metrics in Jonesboro will have to be improved. The selected sectors are not only high paying, but fit the area.

Rice, soybean, and cotton farms dominate the region. Food processing has become a significant industry sector in the city. One area they will target in the manufacturing sector is pharmaceutical production. Most pharmaceuticals are manufactured in the Northeast, but many companies are searching for new places to make their products. The city has low utility rates that could entice these industries to move to Arkansas or encourage others to expand, Young said.

Jonesboro’s location and the recent designations of Interstate 555, and future I-57 as freeways could make the city a logistics titan in the mid-south, Young said. Two of the area’s largest employers, St. Bernards and the NEA Baptist Health System, have transformed the city into a healthcare hub that lure thousands to the city each day, he said, adding that expansion on this front will be key to future economic development.

Consultants have been consistently shocked by Jonesboro, Barber said. The quality of life that already exists in the city, its worker base, and and the economic opportunities to start and grow a business in NEA’s hub city are abundant. But, there must be a concerted push to keep this economic engine running, he said. Momentum is a go start.
“It’s been a busy year. We have a lot to be proud of,” Barber said.