Despite the impressive gains made by other quadrants of the state, Central Arkansas continues to hold sway over the largest share of the state’s economic activity, thanks to a central location, an abundance of resources and a pro-business attitude. These factors continue to pay dividends for the region in the form of growth and expansion of existing companies as well as attracting new corporate citizens.
According to Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock/North Little Rock/Conway metropolitan statistical area (MSA) represents approximately 30 percent of the state’s total gross domestic product (GDP). This makes it the state’s largest economic contributor.
And even though the dampening impact of the coronavirus has been substantial, Chesshir said Central Arkansas continues to generate growth and attract new businesses.
“In the last six months, the Little Rock Regional Chamber has announced five new company locations and three major existing industry expansions,” he said. “These projects include new or expanded headquarters operations, destination retail, major distribution facilities and advanced manufacturing facilities.”
Chesshir said one reason for the sustained brisk performance was that Arkansas has weathered the effects of the pandemic better than other states.
“The coronavirus has negatively impacted all areas of Arkansas, including the metro Little Rock area,” he said. “While consumer spending has been significantly impacted around our state and country, Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker reported Arkansas as one of the least impacted in the United States, and Pulaski County is actually showing a positive consumer spending percentage.”
These comparatively positive numbers have helped the central part of the state continue to be attractive to a number of companies, a mix of existing firms looking to expand, national entities opening additional locations and those entering the state for the first time.
Such companies are not only settling in Central Arkansas, they are doing so in a big way. Amazon leased 247,058 square feet of existing space in the former Jacuzzi plant at 12401 Interstate 30 in Southwest Little Rock; Costco is building a 165,100-square-foot facility on 32 acres at Chenal Parkway and Kirk Road in west Little Rock for its inaugural Arkansas presence; and manufacturer HMS Mfg. Co. announced plans to occupy more than a half-million square feet of space at the Port of Little Rock.
Meanwhile, regional pharmaceutical retailer ExpressRx and aerospace manufacturer Arcturus Aerospace both announced they would be relocating their respective corporate headquarters to the capital city.
One factor that works in the region’s favor is its innovation capacity, thanks to the presence of major colleges and universities. Central Arkansas is home to four member institutions of the University of Arkansas System — the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College and the UA’s eVersity, the state’s first fully online university — as well as the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, a number of community colleges and several private institutions of higher learning.
Central Arkansas also is replete with organizations supporting tech and entrepreneurial ecosystems. These include North Little Rock’s Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub; Conway’s The Conductor; and the Little Rock Technology Park and The Venture Center, the latter of which leverages the city’s thriving fintech community for its annual incubator, attracting fledgling tech companies from across the country and around the globe. These organizations both help develop entrepreneurism and shape the workforce of the future, an appealing lure to the area.
According to statistics from Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, Arkansas outperformed the majority of states on several key business metrics during the coronavirus pandemic, including in the category of employment.
Since bottoming out, Arkansas’ negative percent change in hourly employees in small businesses improved 20 percentage points, from being down 56 percent April 15 to being off 36 percent just one month later. These marks outpaced the economic recoveries in fellow Southern states including Louisiana (down 48.2 percent), Kentucky (down 44.1 percent), Florida (down 43.1 percent) and the U.S. national average (down 43.4 percent), all as of May 15. On this measurement, Arkansas was essentially even with Texas (down 34.5 percent) and Georgia (down 36.9 percent).
Within the state, Central Arkansas counties rank in the top 15 for lowest unemployment, as reported by the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services. The division’s unemployment rate estimates for March 2020 placed Saline County fifth (3.8 percent), Faulkner County seventh (4.1 percent) and Pulaski County tied for 14th (4.6 percent). And, said Chesshir, there are more jobs on the way.
“Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Costco, CZ-USA, Priority 1, HMS Manufacturing and Arcturus Aerospace are just some of the new or expanding companies creating more than 2,000 new jobs now or within the next 12 months,” Chesshir said.
Editor’s Note: Angela Forsyth contributed to this report.