Homes, Rice, Ducks & the Internet: Broadband expansion expected to benefit Stuttgart

by George Jared ([email protected]) 661 views 

In 1918, the Great War was ending in Europe and a new strain of influenza, the Spanish Flu, was causing illness around the world. Residents of Stuttgart, located in Arkansas County in the vast Delta region, were able to turn on electric lights for the first time. A few years later the town, founded in 1878 by Lutheran minister Adam Buerkle, received its first telephone service.

As the years passed, the city continued to grow, but a lack of housing and poor internet service began to impede economic development. The second problem is being addressed after Jonesboro-based Ritter Communications expanded broadband service for Stuttgart residents and businesses.

Stuttgart Economic Development Coordinator David Leech told Talk Business & Politics the improved internet service is vital for the city.

“It’s been unbelievable. … Quite frankly, I compare it to when we got electricity and telephone service,” he said.

Stuttgart Mayor Norma Strabala agreed with Leech. For many years, her city lagged behind the latest developments in internet service and it was severely impacting the quality of life for residents and economic development. When the pandemic hit, many businesses and schools had to rely on online services and courses. This was a major problem with internet speeds that were almost 1,000 times slower than broadband, she said.

“This is the difference between having running water and not having running water,” city spokesman Eric Mahfouz said.

Stuttgart now has 100% fiber high-speed internet services available to local residents after a grant from the Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) Broadband Grant Program. The grant was for $6.1 million and was awarded in March 2021. Residents will receive a new residential fiber service from Ritter Communications called RightFiber, a product that includes internet, phone and video. Ritter has a range of pricing options for customers based on their needs. Packages for internet, television, and phone service start at around $50 and expand up to $180. Customers can pay extra to enhance their internet speeds.

ARC has distributed an estimated $279 million in grants across Arkansas to improve broadband access. Access to high-speed internet is a problem throughout rural parts of the state. It’s estimated that only 69% of state residents have access to broadband. That ranks the Natural State in the bottom five of all states for access. A report released in mid-April noted that 210,000 households in Arkansas are underserved with broadband speeds.

The ARC grant required Stuttgart to find a private provider to build the infrastructure and then provide service to businesses that were not already covered. Five or six providers made pitches, but the city opted to go with Ritter, Leech said. The reasoning was simple.

“It’s a Jonesboro-based company. We started talking to them and this thing went really fast,” he said. “When I call Ritter, I’m talking to someone in Jonesboro, Arkansas, not a computer.”

The two primary economic development problems began to grow after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Flood zone maps were redrawn following the disaster and many places in Stuttgart were reclassified in flood zones, Leech said. If a bank made a housing loan in one of these zones it had to come with flood insurance or the bank has to pay a $10,000 fine, per incident, he said. This stifled homebuilders.

A 20-acre swath was bought outside the floodplain and city officials hoped to lure a builder. One was found and plans were formulated to build houses. The project screeched to a halt when the developer asked one simple question.

“Tell me about your internet,” he said.

Lack of housing has a depressive effect on the local economy even though several metrics indicate it’s booming, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city had a jobless rate of 2.4% and an estimated 65% of its workforce drives to the city each day. Leech estimates there are about 650 jobs now open.

“We knew we had to do something,” he said. “There are no places to rent and very few places to buy.”

The problem was more than just a quality-of-life issue or one of attracting new businesses. The city sits in the Arkansas Delta and is surrounded by row crop fields and rice paddies. Stuttgart has several businesses that have national and even international ties. Riceland Foods Inc., the largest miller and marketer of rice in the world, has operations in the city. Lennox Industries produces commercial grade air-conditioning units.

The two large businesses have been impacted in one way or another by the lack of high-speed internet, but Wilkerson Jewelers was directly impacted when its service went completely down for several days.

Bobby Wilkerson bought the jewelry store in 1972 and he realized that many small-town jewelry stores would become a thing of the past. His company began a jewelry store consultation/liquidation business, Leech said. The business expanded and also includes wholesale and retail through the years and now operates in 44 states.

When their internet went down for three days, the company was in the middle of multiple deals nationwide. They had to operate their business through their telephones, he said.

Stuttgart is known for rice and world-class duck hunting. Known as the “Duck Hunting Capital of the World,” thousands of duck hunters travel to the area each year to hunt and during Thanksgiving, the annual World Championship Duck Calling Contest & Wings Over the Prairie Festival is held. It’s estimated that up to 2,000 duck hunters come to the Stuttgart area a day during duck season and the economic impact to the city of about 9,000 residents is more than $1 million per day.

Many who come to hunt or come for the festival have to conduct business and it’s always been an issue, Leech said. A lot of them have been forced to use the internet on their phones as opposed to using a local option, he added.

Talks have renewed with the developer that was slated to build houses on the 20-acre swath. Leech hopes that housing construction can begin soon.

How important is expanded broadband?

“It’s a game changer,” Leech said.