Fort Smith could employ several strategies to stimulate growth in both its downtown and in its job market as a whole, one economist suggests.
Mervin Jebaraj, University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research director, at the Invest Fort Smith summit on Thursday said measures such as placing more retail and hotels in downtown and initiating an accelerating program for the manufacturing sector could benefit both the downtown and the city as a whole. He said similar measures have worked in other cities whose economies have grown and succeeded over the years.
Fort Smith’s most recent unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, which is on par with the rest of Arkansas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jebaraj said the city in recent years has added, on average, between 300 and 600 jobs to its workforce annually.
Of these jobs, an estimated 16 percent of them are manufacturing, making it the third-largest type of job in the city. The Fort Smith metro area has more manufacturing jobs than any other metro area in Arkansas and exceeds the national average for such jobs, Jebaraj said.
But while manufacturing jobs are important to the Fort Smith area Jebaraj said, there aren’t as many as there once were. After the city’s manufacturing sector peaked at 31,000 jobs in 1999, Jebaraj said, it lost 6,500 such jobs between then and 2007 and then lost 7,500 after the Great Recession.
“Fort Smith still has a much higher manufacturing rate than anywhere else in Arkansas, so it’s important to not think of manufacturing as something that happened before, or that it’s not coming back. Manufacturing has always been a part of Fort Smith and will always be a part of Fort Smith. It’s important to continue investing in that,” he said.
Jebaraj said the accelerating program he suggested may not work as well in 2019 as it could if the trade wars between the United States and China let up. China in the trade wars has imposed up to 25% tariffs on goods and materials manufacturers commonly buy for production.
Nonetheless, Jebaraj spoke well of the idea.
“People think of accelerating programs when they think of tech companies and things like that, but a lot of people have had success to have a lot of manufacturing infrastructure and labor force,” he said.
As for downtown, Jebaraj said the percentage of “food and drink”-type amenities needs to go down — not necessarily because of restaurants closing, but because of other kinds of amenities being added to the area. He estimated about 10,000 people between residents and workers are in downtown on any given day, which demands other amenities to be added.
“Where we’d like to see things move is for hotels and lodging to be further down there,” said Jebaraj. He also said retail — specifically retail with a strong online presence — would help diversify and strengthen the area.
While he pointed out areas the city needed to improve, Jebaraj still spoke well of Fort Smith, and especially of the downtown area.
“It’s been very exciting to see the downtown area grow and get revitalized over the past few years,” he said.