The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked global economic havoc in nearly every economic sector during 2020. It fueled the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression as unemployment soared and the country’s GDP dropped by nearly 33% in the second quarter — the worst decline ever.
Despite the economic devastation, the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (NARIFA) helped the jobs base in several counties and communities in Northeast Arkansas, NARIFA Executive Director Graycen Bigger told Talk Business & Politics.
NARIFA recently released its annual report which noted several accomplishments including Emerson locating a $35 million facility in Ash Flat, workforce development program growth at local colleges, and Sharp County becoming a NARIFA member. It showed there were about 757 jobs created in the organization’s targeted industries.
“In the midst of the pandemic, the NEA Intermodal worked closely with the business community and stakeholders to implement projects that create new opportunities and advance our shared vision. Since the adoption of the organization’s first comprehensive strategic plan in November 2018, the NEA Intermodal has completed or launched 87% of its milestones, trailblazing the way for strong economic development opportunities,” Bigger said.
NARIFA was born more than a decade ago in the midst of the Great Recession in 2009. It was created through Act 690 of the Arkansas Legislature with the purpose of creating and promoting intermodal and multimodal assets in the region.
Its membership includes the cities of Corning, Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge. Lawrence, Randolph, and Sharp counties are also members. The organization had spent several years courting Sharp County as a member, Bigger said. The county shares a lot of the same demographic, economic and geographic challenges as other members of NARIFA so it seemed like a natural fit, she said.
The organization reported 2020 net revenues of $95,625 and had about $335,000 in its coffers. It services a region with about 66,000 residents and a workforce of nearly 26,000. The combined unemployment rate for the area was 4.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Emerson, based in St. Louis, made the biggest manufacturing investment in the region in 2020 when it announced it was spending $35 million to build a new facility in Ash Flat, which is located in Sharp County. It is projected to employ about 245 workers. The Arkansas facility will operate within the company’s “tools and home products” factory line and will manufacture equipment for the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing industries.
In May 2020, the NARIFA was awarded an $8,000 COVID-19 Phase Two Adaptation Grant from the Arkansas Community Foundation to aid small business pandemic recovery. NARIFA launched a partnership with the Arkansas State Small Business and Technology Development Center to provide small business support through webinars focused on resources, pivoting to online business platforms, and rebuilding for the future, per the annual report. The A-State SBTDC also provided one-on-one, confidential business counseling services, which helped the NEA Intermodal significantly expand business retention and expansion services. The data collected reflects activities from August through December 2020.
“In 2021, we will continue our partnership with A-State SBTDC along with Black River Technical College to provide rebuilding workshops for local businesses, resource information, and confidential business counseling. We will also host networking and professional development events,” Bigger said.
The NARIFA partnered with Ozarka College in the summer of 2020 to submit an application for critical technical education programs, per the report. The school received the Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities (WORC) grant, a federal program through the U.S. Department of Labor and Delta Regional Authority. Ozarka was awarded $1.47 million toward a three-year workforce development initiative based at the new Carpenter Technical Center in Ash Flat.
Ozarka’s Regional Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities (ORWORC) initiative will provide support for the coordination of a regional industry and workforce alliance, startup capital, and equipment for industry-driven programs such as welding, AEDC’s new Future Fit, and industrial manufacturing. It will also provide case management and career development services for participants.
The project, a collaboration with industry and community stakeholders such as FNBC Bank will enable Ozarka to serve an 11-county service area, including three border counties in Missouri. The ORWORC initiative will advance a regional pipeline for new entrants to the workforce as well as dislocated and incumbent workers. Specifically, the project will deliver workplace readiness training, offer industry credentialing opportunities, and provide work-based learning experiences.
“The NEA Regional Intermodal Authority continues to exceed expectations and prove why it is one of Arkansas’ fastest-growing economic development organizations. With many transformational projects underway, the NEA Intermodal is proud to attribute much of our success to strong, public-private relationships. Our region truly shares a vision for building economic vitality and is committed to moving forward together,” Bigger said.