A decade ago the Great Recession was raging and most of the rural counties in Northeast Arkansas had double digit unemployment and stagnant wage growth. Three counties — Clay, Randolph and Lawrence and the cities of Hoxie, Corning, Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge — came together to form the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority (NARIFA).
The organization has had successes and failures. NARIFA was instrumental in landing the Peco Foods processing plant and a subsidiary plant in Corning. NARIFA also spent thousands of dollars and several years pursuing a rail tie plant that failed. NARIFA recently completed a comprehensive economic study by Boyette Strategic Advisors, and is ready to launch a new strategic plan, NARIFA Executive Director Graycen Bigger said.
NARIFA communities suffer from $130 million in economic “leakage” to neighboring communities each year, so retail development will be crucial to the plan, she added. About 130 stakeholders were surveyed during the plan’s development and quality of life was a top concern, according to the plan.
“We’re really excited to start our strategic plan,” she said. “Our area is unique, and our plan focuses on our strengths in this region.”
Five sectors will be the focus of the plan. Those sectors are value-added agriculture; manufacturing; transportation and warehousing; retail and commercial development, according to the plan.
The value-added ag sector has more than 1,086 workers already in the three-county area, and the sector is projected to grow 22.5% during the next five years, Bigger said. At least 207,067 soybean acres are grown in the area as well as 191,468 rice acres.
Potential employer targets might include finalized, edible product production through cooling, drying processing, packaging or extracting, which alters the product from its original state. Two colleges in the region, Black River Technical College and Arkansas State University, offer ag sector-related degree programs.
The manufacturing sector has 1,759 workers and is projected to grow 19.9%, according to the plan. There are two industrial sites in the area, and there are 14 available buildings that have up to 170,000 square feet.
Transportation employs 418 workers and the sector is expected to grow 7.9% during the next five years. The NARIFA area is about a two-hour drive to Little Rock or Memphis. The retail and commercial sectors employ 2,700 workers and they are projected to grow by 2.9%. Quality of place factors are included in these sectors, and two of the highest quality of life factors in the region are the Beatles at the Ridge Festival and the Pocahontas Aquatic Center.
“As the economy in the region continues to evolve, the NEA Intermodal, along with its partners, needs to increase attention and focus on supporting existing businesses, as well as providing support and services to new businesses considering locating in the region. Increasing the collaboration between the public and private sectors will strengthen the business vitality of the region,” the plan states.
One of the first steps in the plan will be to establish a Business Retention and Expansion program, Bigger said.
“The need for an active, solutions-based business retention and expansion program was expressed many times during the stakeholder engagement exercises conducted during the development of this plan,” the plan states.
Community and workforce development will be a focus, Bigger said. Arkansas ranks 50th among all states in quality of life metrics and that has to change on the state and regional level, Bigger maintains. Developing the area’s rich history including its musical heritage is part of that quality of life push, she said.
Workforce development is another national problem that impacts the intermodal region, she said. Finding workers with the right skills and work experiences can be a challenge for businesses, and finding places for workers to live is another problem that must be addressed, she added.
“We have more jobs than people to fill them. … We have to improve our housing inventories,” she said. “We have to be able to keep our young and talented workers.”
During the next several months, Bigger will share the plan with stakeholders and then begin the first steps outlined. Another goal is to grow the intermodal with new members.
Clay County and the city of Hoxie have pulled out of the intermodal group, and there have been efforts in recent years to bring them back into the fold and add other communities, Bigger said. The Arkansas Department of Transportation provides $75,000 per year to fund NARIFA, and each of the governmental entities involved contributes $5,000 per year. Other funding streams will have to be found to keep NARIFA vibrant in the future, she added.
“Our communities have a lot of similarities and it helps us to have a unified front,” she said. “The intermodal allows us to move forward as a region.”