NARIA report shows broad growth in quality-of-life metrics, jobs base

by George Jared ([email protected]) 628 views 

When the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority (NARIA) was formed in 2009 it had several goals in mind. The nonprofit organization wanted to grow the jobs base in its member counties and cities, and it aimed to have an impact on quality-of-life metrics such as housing availability.

In 2021, the NARIA target region experienced broad growth in many of these metrics, according to the organization’s annual report.

Employment numbers across the board were the best since the onset of the Great Recession in 2009, and members actually gained population while many counties in Northeast Arkansas lost residents.

NARIA added two cities, Cave City and Ash Flat during the last year, and was able to secure $800,000 in community development grants. The two cities join Walnut Ridge, Corning and Pocahontas as members along with Lawrence, Sharp and Randolph counties. It’s governed by a 24-member board appointed by the governmental entity members.

The organization generated $115,000 in revenue during the year and its year-end assets totaled $379,610, NARIA Executive Director Graycen Colbert Bigger told Talk Business & Politics.

“The intermodal worked with agency and local government partners to successfully recruit two new companies, CF Steel and MxG Fiber in 2021 resulting in the creation of 45 new jobs,” she said. “Emerson completed their first year of operation [in Ash Flat] with 100 new jobs.”

One project NARIA helped to facilitate is a housing development project, Cozy Country Estates, in Pocahontas. Cozy Country, based in Thayer, Mo., has plans to build houses in Ash Flat during the next two years. The company started building 48 houses in the city with an average starting price around $200,000, the report states. Pocahontas’s population has grown by 11.5% since 2010, and added 400 jobs in 2020, Bigger said.

Corning has launched a retail recruitment pilot. A study revealed that the city loses more than $20 million per year in “retail leakage” due to a lack of shopping options, the report states. Corning has partnered with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to find ways to attract more retail businesses.

NARIA was created through Act 690 of the Arkansas Legislature with the purpose of creating and promoting intermodal and multimodal assets in the region. It was instrumental in Peco Foods locating a processing plant in Pocahontas and a feed mill in Corning in 2014. Those projects and the connective businesses created thousands of jobs in the region spurring millions of dollars of economic growth each year.

In 2022, the economic development organization is focused on infrastructure and site development, she said. Walnut Ridge has attracted several crypto farm projects and NARIA was instrumental in landing one of them.

NARIA’s higher education partners have made strides in the region during the last couple of years. Workforce development has been a significant goal.

“We’ve worked hard to see growth in our local communities in terms of population, revenue growth, job numbers and even retention of retail dollars in the community. Our higher education partners have also made great strides in developing strategic programs and partnerships to support workforce development,” Bigger said. “Our higher education partners, Black River Technical College (BRTC) and Ozarka, have also expanded their footprint in underserved rural areas in Clay and Stone counties this year. We’ve also worked with Ozarka to ensure Emerson stays on track to meet workforce numbers.”

Emerson opened its $35 million facility in Ash Flat in late July. The company re-fitted the former 277,000 square foot Cherokee Frame manufacturing plant for its professional tools business, with a primary focus on producing Greenlee specialty tools and related products for electrical tradespeople in North America.

Emerson has more than 150 employees working at the facility and plans to grow the operations, with a goal of creating up to 285 total jobs at the site over the next four years.

Workforce available in the area and its close proximity to the company’s Memphis distribution center were the two primary reasons the company chose to locate at the Ash Flat site in 2020.
Northeast Arkansas, as are many parts of the state and nation, is in critical need of healthcare workers such as nurses, and BRTC received a $200,000 grant for the Northeast Arkansas Nursing Workforce Development Initiative. NARIA served as the economic development partner on the grant.

BRTC has partnered with St. Bernards Healthcare, Five Rivers Medical Center, Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Arkansas Methodist Medical Center to create a nursing workforce consortium. The goal is to train 24 more new nurses each year, the report states.

The region will need upgrades to its infrastructure. Roads, water and energy system improvements will be goals as the decade unfolds.

“We’re currently focused on improving infrastructure. This includes advocating for I-57 in Clay, Randolph and Lawrence counties as well as a local bypass in the city of Pocahontas. We’re also focused on improving water and energy capacity in our communities,” Bigger said.

Another issue that will have to be addressed is the lack of buildings and sites, Bigger said. NARIA is compiling a list of buildings and sites for its targeted industries.

NARIA also has several events planned for the fall.

“We’re currently planning a fall job fair for the region and will participate in the A-state Delta Center’s Thrown to the Wolves event,” she said.