There was a time when Mississippi County was one of the most prosperous counties in Arkansas. The county that sits in the far northeast corner of the state abuts the Mississippi River. It’s known for its many row crop fields that include cotton, soybeans, rice and others.
At its peak, it was the top rain-grown cotton producing county in the country. From the 1950s through the early 1990s, Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville provided high-paying jobs and a boon to the local economy. Blytheville vied with Jonesboro to be the fulcrum city in the region.
Times have changed.
The base closed, and cotton farming is not nearly as profitable as it use to be. To combat the population and sales tax loss, the county reinvented itself, transforming into the top steel producing county west of the Mississippi River and one of the top in the country.
Those high-paying jobs have to have a support system in the local community, and that’s part of Arkansas Northeast College’s mission, ANC President Dr. James Shemwell told Talk Business & Politics just before the pandemic shut down his campus.
“We are really proud of the value our students get here at ANC,” he said. “We have the lowest tuition rates in the state. College is a proving ground. It’s a place you go to get a higher paying job and a better standard of life moving forward.”
ANC was established as a traditional two-year community college in the mid-1970s. On April 29, 1977, U.S. Vice President Walter F. Mondale announced that the college had been awarded a $6.3 million federal grant to build the nation’s first solar photovoltaic prototype facility. An additional $500,000 was received and combined with the $6.3 million grant and a $2.5 million county bond issue.
ANC also operates satellite campuses in Leachville and Osceola. About 15% of its student base comes from southern Missouri.
In the early 1990s, Nucor opened a steel mill in Hickman, just outside of Blytheville. It coincided with the closure of the Air Force base and it changed the labor pool in the county, Shemwell said. ANC started the Solutions Group, a group that worked to provide technical and vocational training and certifications for those working in the steel making and connected industries.
It’s estimated that about 1,500 people per year utilize these programs on the ANC campus, he said. In 2018, the Center for Allied Technologies was opened on the campus. The 90,000-square-foot facility houses the college’s Arkansas Steel Making Academy, a partnership with German based to SMS Group to provide training in the industry. It cost about $17 million to build and $1.8 million of that came through private donations.
The Solutions Group and the training courses it offers are also housed in the Center. Those courses include, but are not limited to electrical and mechanical training, HVAC, a welding laboratory, labs, computer classroom, industrial technology and other classes.
ANC has partnered with the steel and related industries to develop types of training that can be used by workers in those industries, Shemwell said. Classes are offered on staggered days and at staggered times to accommodate work schedules, he added. Workers in the steel tech industries can make on average up to $89,000 per year, and that’s important when you are talking about a region — the Mississippi Delta — that is among the poorest in the country, he added.
Mississippi County has a population of about 41,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median income in the county is $38,000, which is almost $20,000 below the national average, and is more than $6,000 below the state average. About one in four residents in the county lives at or below the poverty line.
Besides its workforce services, ANC offers a broad range of courses for college students. More than 2,000 students attend traditional classes at the college, and about 70% of that student base is female, according to the school. Minorities comprise 30% of the student population. More than half of the classes offered are offered online, and the average age of students attending school is 28 years old.
Rebuilding the region’s professional and vocational workforce is the number one aim of the college, Shemwell said. A better-educated populous in the region will lead to a more vibrant local and regional economy and it will help stem the tide of population loss that has plagued communities throughout the Delta in recent decades.
“At ANC, people can join others like themselves in creating the futures they want. ANC offers access to higher education and the opportunity to prepare for a variety of career fields. ANC graduates go on to become doctors and lawyers, business owners and industry managers. Technical certificates and job training programs provide relevant skills for entering the workplace with better earning potential — in one year or less, in many cases. ANC students train to become nurses while others pursue careers in steel industry, law enforcement or dental assisting technology,” he added.