Consultant: Searcy should focus on growing legacy businesses

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 567 views 

The city of Searcy should focus on growing its legacy businesses and industry along with firearms and ammunition, aerospace and aviation, and data centers, a consultant told community leaders Friday (Jan. 19) in unveiling the community’s #MySearcy economic development strategy.

Del Boyette, president and CEO of Boyette Strategic Advisors and the former Arkansas Economic Development Commission executive director, told attendees that legacy businesses and industry should be the city’s number one target over the next five years.

More than 40% of Searcy jobs are provided by legacy employers, which include financial services, manufacturing, transportation/warehousing, food processing and healthcare. But they are dealing with rising costs, an aging workforce, and challenges with finding talent.

Among the other targeted industries, Boyette said the firearms and ammunition sector is projected to grow over the next five years. It benefits from supportive state policies. Earnings per job are more than $74,000.

The city also has opportunities in aviation and aerospace because of its vicinity to the Little Rock Air Force Base, its municipal airport, academic partnership opportunities with Harding University, and the fact that the chair of the Searcy Regional Economic Development Corporation is a pilot.

Data centers can grow because of a sales tax exemption on computer technology equipment passed by Arkansas lawmakers in 2023. These can provide 80-100 jobs, each paying $80,000 per job, but the city must identify a site, Boyette said.

The economic development strategy came after a study that included contacting more than 1,500 people, including 1,418 residents and 83 employers. Boyette said 371 of the respondents were millennials and members of the younger Generation Z.

The survey found that 89.8% of responding employers were satisfied with Searcy’s business climate and 83% were satisfied with the workforce. Meanwhile, 81.9% of residents were positive about Searcy as a place to live, and 66.4% were positive about the business climate.

It is part of the city’s #MySearcy community development effort. Mayor Mat Faulkner said the effort is being funded with city funds, and the city now has economic development funding built into its budget.

“It’s from the ground up. Right?” he said. “It’s not from the top down. It’s what do we envision together for the Searcy of tomorrow for our kiddos, and that’s why it’s called ‘MySearcy.’”

Boyette’s plan has seven strategic goals. Those are:

– Enhance programs and services for existing business and industry. The plan states the city should create a business retention and expansion program, survey employers to better understand their workforce needs, and identify sectors and occupations that are implementing aggressive automation strategies.
– Identify options for additional sites and buildings. The plan says the city should assess redevelopment opportunities, identify and purchase or option property, and collaborate with White County on property issues. Boyette said prospective employers must have places to locate, and they may have to be located outside the Searcy city limits in White County.
– Create a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem, which includes determining needs related to space and programming to support entrepreneurs. Boyette said Harding has a good entrepreneurial program. Young people will want to start their own businesses. The city needs co-working space and venture capital, and it needs to be scaled to what would work in Searcy.
– Develop a high-quality workforce, which involves developing a workforce training center and aligning workforce training programs to create continuous pathways.
– Continue to build a livable and equitable community. Elements of that goal include pursuing opportunities in the downtown area and enhancing recreational opportunities.
– Create robust branding and marketing strategies that include developing a dynamic new brand for Searcy, implementing an aggressive marketing strategy, and launching a talent recruitment and retention initiative.
– Elevating the economic delivery system, including changing the name of Forward Searcy, the city’s umbrella economic development organization, to Forward Searcy, Inc.

The city will be holding an election March 5 asking voters to approve a 20-year, half-cent sales tax along with a $13.9 million bond issue to fund $93 million in projects, the centerpiece being a community center. Other projects would include an outdoor aquatics park and baseball and softball fields.

“We need to let the world know that Searcy means business,” Boyette said.