I’ve been traveling to Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas for more than 30 years. Those early memories are fond ones, but not inspiring, though now I see the region in a whole new light.
I remember when the Blytheville Air Force Base closed and wondered if the community would survive. I recall when Jonesboro and A-State were sleepy little distractions that didn’t much pique my interest as a young adult. They certainly didn’t appeal to my appetite for socializing with the exception of the 501 Club.
I also remember taking Highway 14 through Amagon (birthplace of Mike Beebe) so you could cut through Weiner to come in the south side of Jonesboro. That was one of the quickest routes to get from Central Arkansas to Northeast Arkansas in those days, although once when I nearly took out a pig in the middle of the road on old Highway 49, it surely would have made that trip longer.
For the last 15 years, I’ve watched Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas evolve into something new, and I have to say I’m proud.
Jonesboro is flourishing. Improvements to Highway 67 and I-555 have shortened travel times from there to Little Rock and Memphis, respectively. There is much to do in the capital city of Northeast Arkansas. Jobs abound, buoyed by a manufacturing presence that is resilient, a banking sector that invests heavily in the region, a diversified agricultural economy, and two major health care systems that serve patients in a major metro way.
A-State has grown, in part thanks to the strong leadership of the departing Dr. Chuck Welch, who has headed the ASU System for more than a decade. His steadiness has contributed to a super solid foundation and the future is bright for the flagship campus and its many satellite communities across the region.
Having a major convention center and growing tourism industry has also helped open eyes to what Jonesboro is becoming.
Up the road, Paragould is experiencing a resurgence as more downtown investment begins and the community’s leadership cements its measured growth. Further up the road, Mississippi County is booming thanks to the steel industry and anchor tenants like Nucor and U.S. Steel. The area’s agricultural economy is strong and diversified and remains a powerhouse for commerce.
Throw in fantastic tourism attractions in the region, such as what’s happening in Wilson, Arkansas, the Cold War Museum’s birth in Blytheville, Walnut Ridge’s capitalization on music, the regional heritage of Johnny Cash, and downtown amenities ranging from restaurants to coffee shops to brew houses. There is a lot more to do than just ordering a cold draft at the old 501 Club.
One of the things that has always impressed me about Jonesboro and the region goes back to the banking crisis of 2008. When the rest of the state (and country) were sinking economically, Northeast Arkansas was holding firm. Did some sectors take big hits? Yes, but overall it was not nearly as dire in NEA as it was elsewhere in Arkansas and other regions of the country.
Mark Young, the longtime leader of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, who is interviewed later in this publication, said it best when he claimed NEA doesn’t experience major booms nor does it get waylaid by big busts. In the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, Jonesboro and the surrounding region is the tortoise — slow and steady wins the race.
There are many great ideas on the table for consideration as the region ponders its future. From housing and water parks in Osceola to bike trails and connections between the cities to more growth from existing businesses that have potential to expand even more, Northeast Arkansas is on the rise.
I tell people around the state all the time to keep an eye on the area. While Central Arkansas will always have its capital city moniker and be a huge focus of attention, and while Northwest Arkansas is the crown jewel today for its insane explosion of population, business and culture, it is Northeast Arkansas that we should also be particularly thankful for.
Our state needs as many thriving regions as possible. From seeds planted more than 20 years ago, Jonesboro and the surrounding region are benefiting from those smart choices. I see more seeds being planted today that I predict will lead to even more fruitful results 20 years from now.
It’s inspiring to watch and to report on.
Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief of Talk Business & Politics. He hosts a weekly TV show on KAIT Sundays at 9:30am and is on three times a week on KASU.