The United States Department of Agriculture intends to move its Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington D.C. and Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward told Talk Business & Politics he hopes both land in Arkansas. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the city of Jonesboro, Craighead County, and other economic development partners have issued a joint application to locate the two centers in Jonesboro.
Ward is hopeful that Jonesboro’s location in the middle of the country and that Arkansas’ rich agriculture sector will compel USDA to locate ERS and NIFA in Northeast Arkansas’ hub city. The two could employ up to 700 federal workers and the jobs would be well-paid and consistent, he said. It could become a significant economic development in the region, he added.
“We’re watching it … It would be great to have those offices in Arkansas,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced earlier this week that the USDA has received 136 applicants from 35 states interested in becoming the new homes of ERS and NIFA. In August, Perdue revealed plans to move ERS and NIFA outside the National Capital Region by the end of 2019 and invited interested parties to submit proposals, with a deadline which had been extended to Oct. 15. USDA intends to select the new location or locations by January 2019 and will retain a consultant with expertise in relocations.
“The interest from across the country has been overwhelming as localities, universities, private entities, and elected officials realize the potential for their communities in become the new home for these two agencies,” Perdue said. “It is an old saying that not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., but it is gratifying to see so many folks step forward wanting to prove that to be the case. We look forward to working with Ernst & Young (consulting firm) in examining all of the proposals and selecting the new locations.”
The consulting firm will develop criteria for selecting a site, Ward said. Cost efficiency will be a significant factor, he said. It’s not clear if both offices will be located in the same place, but Ward said he thinks that’s most likely.
States that sent applications include Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
The entities expressing interest in hosting EFS and NIFA include educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, state development agencies, county development agencies, municipalities, and for-profit entities. USDA has also received letters of support from a number of governors, members of Congress, farm-related organizations, and state and local officials.
USDA is undertaking the relocations for a variety of reasons, Perdue said. The move will place important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of who don’t live in the Washington, D.C. area. Taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which could allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. The plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities, according to the agency.
Under the plan, no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily let go. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location. For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.
Perdue said 91% of USDA’s approximately 108,000 employees currently work outside of the Washington, D.C. region. As part of the changes, ERS will be aligned with the Office of the Chief Economist under the Office of the Secretary. This represents a return to its previous positioning when ERS was aligned under the Assistant Secretary for Economics within the Office of the Secretary.