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PROMISING TRENDS

By John Lovett, Times Record / jlovett@swtimes.com

The hospitality industry showed the most growth in employment numbers for Fort Smith in 2016 and the transportation sector continues to be the largest employer although it saw a slight drop in numbers.

In the past year, leisure and hospitality jobs increased about 2.2 percent based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and calculations made by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business. Leisure and hospitality now makes up 8 percent of Fort Smith's jobs.

Amy Knight Jones, convention and event sales manager for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the addition of Home2 Suites on Phoenix Avenue last January boosted the local hospitality sector. And several Fort Smith hotels have gone through recent renovations, including the new Double Tree by Hilton downtown, Courtyard by Marriott and Hampton Inn, both on Rogers Avenue. Fairfield Inn is expected to open on Phoenix this summer.

"It's been a good travel year with a lot of travel groups and more events," Jones said of 2016, mentioning the Steel Horse Rally in the spring and a recent volleyball tournament.

Sports tourism has become the main focus for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Jones added.

According to the CBRE study, Fort Smith's government sector saw the next largest increase in employment from December 2015 to December 2016 with about 2.1 percent more jobs to make up 17 percent of the market. The next biggest positive mover was education and health services by about 1 percent to 15 percent of the market.

The mining, logging and construction sector was the biggest loser for the area last year, shedding 500 jobs in 2016 and falling to 5 percent of local employment.

Although it decreased about 1 percent in 2016 in Fort Smith, trade, transportation and utilities still make up the largest sector of the local workforce at 21 percent. With ArcBest Corp.'s new headquarters being built at Fort Smith's Chaffee Crossing, that piece of the pie likely will increase over the next few years as ArcBest looks to add about 975 jobs by 2021.


ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

A long history of manufacturing, logistics and military presence has helped shape the city's workforce, with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Wing playing key roles in technical training aspects for local employers.

"Fort Smith has several things going for it when it comes to what is attractive to companies," Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders cites the city's "enviable transportation system, including interstate, rail, air and river." The mayor also commented on the friendliness of his citizens.

"Out-of-town visitors frequently comment to me about how friendly and helpful the people are here," Sanders wrote.

Fort Smith's economy has proven to be largely resistant to the "peaks and valleys" like many communities of its size, Allen noted. Fort Smith's population was 88,194 in 2015, the second-most populated city in the state of Arkansas out of 541 cities.

"Yes, we've had bumps in the road, but over the last several decades we're growing ... modest growth, but growing," Allen said. "Companies that I've worked with like economic predictability and security. A mid-size city like ours has a lot to offer companies ... big city amenities with a small-town feel."

PEOPLE POWER

During a recent safety award presentation for Mars Petcare, Sanders said the presence of a large number of national and international companies like Mars Petcare is a "very positive indicator" to a company considering Fort Smith.

"They see local companies continuing to invest, grow and expand," Sanders added. "Many companies can also boast of the long-term commitments by employees, with significant numbers of employees with 30, 40 years service with their employees."

State Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, represents District 9, which includes Fort Smith, said the work ethic of his constituents is the best selling point for the area. He said it makes it easy for him to vouch for the local workforce when recruiting business.

"The workforce is stable and safe, with a large number of companies boasting of millions of hours with no lost time accidents," Sanders added.

A talented and flexible local workforce with local training opportunities has become a dominant theme in the past five years as the local business makeup shifted slightly from 18 percent to 15 percent of its workers in manufacturing. That is now the same as the education and health services sector, and 1 percent less than the local government sector.

The Arkansas College of Health Education, which recently created the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, has helped boost that sector by now hosting 50 jobs. The college welcomes its first class of 150 medical students this year.

Training programs at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are also tailored for the needs of local manufacturers like Baldor Electric Motors.

Allen said in the past few years, Fort Smith is also being recognized as a good place for office sector jobs.

"We've been able to secure several projects like 188th Intelligence Mission, ShareService Center, FFO Home headquarters and of course ArcBest Corp. headquarters to name a few," Allen said.

Office sector projects require a different approach when it comes to economic development, he added, because the companies looking to expand are usually looking for communities with strong K-12 education options, quality of place amenities like biking/hiking trails, the arts, high-end retail shopping and population diversity.

"We have a growing trail system and other outdoor activities, with other amenities such as music festivals, events like the Steel Horse Rally, the Old Fort Days Rodeo, Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair, art and history museums, the Fort Smith Symphony, the Unexpected Murals — all led by the private sector," Sanders said.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, medical facilities and the new Arkansas Colleges of Health Education are viewed by the mayor as a major part of that formula.

"To compete in the 21st century you must have a growing university and quality health care system," Allen wrote. "It's really the minimum price of admission in today's economic development world. Communities that are winning quality projects today must have both of these just to be considered as a potential location. We're very fortunate to have both."