At the dawn of 2020, our globalized economy means that reinvigorating the American manufacturing sector is more important than ever. Hempstead County, Arkansas and its county seat Hope provide rich opportunities for manufacturing development. The Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation (HCEDC) is working to augment economic opportunities in the region.
The HCEDC views itself as a long-term organization, focusing not merely on business growth but on enduring regional development. Formally incorporated in 1986, the EDC is a public-private entity, receiving steady funding from Hempstead County, the City of Hope, and local utility provider Hope Water & Light. President Steve Harris, a proud local, returned to his home county after a career in economic development largely in Texas.
Hempstead County’s advantage is its manufacturing acumen and infrastructure. “Our employment level is highly concentrated in manufacturing, so we’ve always had a good industrial base here,” Harris explains. By his and others’ estimation, the area’s demographics have consistently been skewed toward manufacturing. “The national percentage of people employed in manufacturing is approximately 9 percent. In the state of Arkansas: 13 percent,” he explains. “We’re somewhere around 25 percent.”
Value-added agriculture is the county’s largest manufacturing industry, with poultry giant Tyson operating a feed plant in the area that employs over 1,200 area workers. The HCEDC is now examining a proposed $65 million ‘mega’ feed mill, and recently, Tyson replaced two older feed mills with all-new infrastructure providing rail and truck access. Baking company Southern Bakeries also operates several facilities in the area, offering an additional 350 jobs. This industry augments Hempstead County’s pre-existing affinity for agriculture; the county is famous for its watermelons, which have set world records since the early 1900s.
The county and city of Hope also host metal casting, with plants that manufacture steel trusses, decking, and joints. The engineering firm New Millennium Building Systems, a division of Indiana-based giant Steel Dynamics, recently bought more land in the area, a sign of increased business investment in the area and community.
Further, Hempstead County is home to a wood fabricating sector. Harris calls the area the ‘wood basket’ of Arkansas, due to the area’s lush forests. “Just because of the raw material here, we’re recruiting wood processing companies,” he says, referring to numerous wood processing companies like Georgia Pacific Particle Board.
Yet these industries can only flourish with distribution networks. Located near the junction of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, Hempstead County is well-placed to provide easy distribution options for manufactured products. The I-30 interstate corridor connects Hope with Little Rock and Dallas-Fort Worth, and the area enjoys rail access. Two rail lines, including Union Pacific, provide freight transport to the area in another hallmark of Hempstead County’s manufacturing heritage.
Although this infrastructure has suffered from wear and tear over the decades, HCEDC has been working hard to restore it to its proper condition. The county and the EDC recently finished a $1.8 million rail repair project, with funding largely courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and supplemented by the EDC.
“We were having derailment issues and drainage issues, so we went in and straightened some curves out,” Harris recalls of the project, “so we feel like we’re good for the long haul.” Hempstead County’s railroads currently serve three area industries, with room for two more. The county already has industrial-certified land directly on or adjacent to the rail lines, ready to be developed as soon as new business moves in.
HCEDC is also working to enhance the county’s status as a tourist destination. “Tourism is a pretty big thing for us,” Harris states. Hope is the birthplace of former President Bill Clinton, whose birthplace is a National Historic Site that attracts ten thousand visitors per year. Though the site is administered by the U.S. National Park Service, Hope undoubtedly benefits from the revenue generated by the increased traffic. The city is currently investing $450,000 in a new streetscape development between the Clinton site and a newly built farmers’ market in central Hope, intending to draw more foot traffic to Hope’s downtown area.
Hempstead County is also home to Historic Washington State Park, a 101-acre settlement surrounding the old pioneer town of Washington, Arkansas. Formally incorporated in 1824, Washington served as a stopover on the Southwest Trail for settlers heading to Texas and hosted historical luminaries such as Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. Blacksmith James Black is credited with creating the iconic Bowie knife here, and the town briefly served as Arkansas’ capital during the American Civil War.
All of these sectors require a passionate, skilled workforce. Hempstead County’s University of Arkansas at Hope-Texarkana (UAHT) offers two-year programs for rapid career development. Formerly the Red River Vocational Technical School, the college was absorbed into the state university system in 1995 and renamed to reflect its new status. UAHT continues to specialize in technical training, even creating custom degrees where required.
Hempstead County is home to the John W. Turk power plant, which provides 600 megawatts to customers in three states. Built in 2012 for a staggering $1.8 billion, the plant requires advanced training for its 120 staff. UAHT, in cooperation with the Turk parent company Southwestern Electric Power, developed a power plant technology degree, a move Harris hails as “meeting a need for our workforce.”
HCEDC works in conjunction with other area EDCs to nurture workforce development at a younger age. It is a member of the Southwest Arkansas Development Alliance, a regional group of EDCs bonded by a common goal. The alliance’s largest accomplishment is a county-wide event known as Explore Success, which brings in local speakers and industries to speak with middle school children to promote local careers in manufacturing. Launched in 2018, Explore Success earned the alliance a National Innovation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations.
Workforce development and youth retention are persistent challenges for the HCEDC and other area organizations. “I think we’re like a lot of communities in the rural South,” Harris observes candidly. “We’re not a high-growth area, so we’re facing those challenges of trying to grow in a no-growth era of rural development.”
To this end, the organization is now launching a five-year strategy, known as the Thrive Hempstead County Plan, focusing on the categories of economic development, education, public projects, tourism, and quality of life. Developed in concert with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Economic Development Institute, the plan offers both short- and long-term goals developed by area committees.
Harris notes that all committees collected polling data from high school and university-age students, acknowledging the necessity of youth retention. “That’s where we are right now,” Harris says, “so that’s given us a good road map for our community to move forward.”
While the HCEDC receives no state funding, Harris is quick to point out that does not mean the state government has not been supportive. On the contrary, he says that Little Rock has been active in bottom-up local development, a testament to Arkansas’ relatively small size. “Arkansas is a small enough state that the state government EDC is very active state-wide, and they largely support our local organizations,” he remarks.
He contrasts this to neighboring – and much larger – Texas, where the state government is forced by sheer size to allocate resources to larger communities, leaving smaller counties to support themselves. Hope has a population of ten thousand and offers a workforce with a median age of thirty-two.
As an example, Harris relates how the HCEDC has been recruiting a Europe-based firm to set up a local office. Rather than reaching out to court it and other individual businesses, Arkansas’ state government instead assembled a package of tax incentives based on economic indicators such as job creation, capital investment, and wage scaling. This removed the hassle of negotiation, as the incentives were already in place for companies to see for themselves.
“That’s a great benefit to us at the local level, because that can be a financially significant incentive program,” Harris says, elaborating that the state government does what a small EDC cannot. “We don’t have a large budget locally for incentives, but we can do some tax abatements like most states can do.”
In addition to these incentives, Arkansas’ state government operates an economic development team that travels out to more rural areas such as Hempstead County, fostering business plans and advertising new business opportunities on a state-wide level. Hempstead County and other small counties can benefit from these experienced development professionals. “There’s a lot of support from the state that we don’t have to pay for,” Harris says. “That’s very beneficial to us at the local level in Arkansas.”
Hope and Hempstead County are set to embark on a new era of prosperity. With steady support from both industries and Arkansas’ state government, the HCEDC and its partners are ready to lead the region into a new era of economic investment and growth.