As the hub of northeast Arkansas, Jonesboro is a thriving city with a population close to 70,000. Known as the metro area for Craighead and Poinsett counties, Jonesboro’s economy is changing rapidly and expected to continue to evolve. With a record low unemployment rate, the largest employers — health care, education and manufacturing — are looking for and expecting a more skilled workforce.
by Jeanni Brosius
“Jobs. That’s the key to growth,” says Mark Young, CEO and president of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. “You must have good jobs available for your city to grow.”
Young says that in the last two years, Jonesboro has seen the creation of more than 2,000 high-paying jobs.
“The biggest challenges for the next five years are to get high school graduates to go into fields that are available,” says Mike Downing, vice president of Jonesboro Unlimited, which is an affiliate of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Welders are in high demand by manufacturing, and in 2030, a high percentage of jobs will be ones we don’t have now,” he adds.
Jonesboro Unlimited is a member-driven nonprofit organization that focuses on the economic development of Jonesboro. It has five target industries: health care, manufacturing, professional services, logistics and agriculture. Young says with these strong areas of commerce and industry in place, tax collections continue to rise, and the population will continue to climb at almost twice the national rate.
According to EMSI, an Idaho-based labor market research firm, Jonesboro is the No. 1 metro area for skilled job growth in the state, and the third highest city among the metro areas in seven surrounding states.
Jonesboro is also rich in educational opportunities that focus on workforce development through the collaboration of industry and educators.
There are currently 14,000 students enrolled at Arkansas State University. The university provides advanced degrees that include biotechnology, molecular biosciences, engineering and chemistry.
ASU is also home to the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM), which is the first of its kind in Arkansas. In the fall of 2016, the institute enrolled 120 students in its inaugural class. The school focuses on patient-centered and population-based osteopathic medical care. Jonesboro Unlimited projects that the institute will have an $80 million annual economic impact on the region.
ASU-Newport is a community college with three campuses in Newport, Jonesboro and Marked Tree. It offers technical certificates and associate degrees.
ASU’s community college also operates the Workforce Training Consortium, a customized job training facility within the industrial park to meet the specified needs of companies in the area. WTC is a nonprofit, employer-driven collective of industry and education. It offers training to employees of its member companies.
The Northeast Arkansas Career and Technical Center enriches the curriculum of high schools in the Jonesboro area. It includes technical, career and industrial education programs to create skilled employees for high-paying, high-demand jobs. Downing says one does not have to have a four-year degree to get a good-paying job.
“The vision and future of Jonesboro is extremely high,” says Mayor Harold Perrin. “I-55 runs through our city, and our industry is expanding. We are also the hub for retail, entertainment, education and [health care].”
There are several sites ready for new businesses to break ground on the 1,500-acre Craighead Technology Park, which is owned by Jonesboro Unlimited. There are 10 to 200 acre spaces with fully developed utilities.
Interstate 55 offers a one-hour connection to Memphis, home to Memphis International Airport and a connection to Interstate 40. From there, drivers may reach North Carolina to the east and California to the west. U.S. Highway 67 provides a two-hour, four-lane drive to Little Rock, where I-30, I-40 and I-530 meet, giving travelers easy access to major U.S. cities.
Perrin says it is proposed that the 2020 Census will reflect a population of more than 80,000.
“We are the second largest city in land mass in Arkansas with 80-square miles to build on,” Perrin adds.
Young says the backbone of Jonesboro is the people and that the community is prepared for continued growth. “Like any community, you can’t have growth without a great economy and without strong infrastructure,” Young says. “Jonesboro has that with utility provider Jonesboro City Water and Light (CWL).”
He says with CWL’s forward thinking and prepared approach to growth, industries, such as Nestlé, Frito-Lay and Hytrol Conveyor Company, who call Jonesboro home, continue to reinvest in the community.
“Couple that with the presence of Arkansas State University and ASU-Newport in Jonesboro, and you have home-grown, educated talent ready to go to work in Jonesboro,” Young says.
Forbes ranked Jonesboro as the fifteenth lowest of 185 U.S. small metro areas for the cost of doing business. The cost of living in Jonesboro is lower than many of the cities. Electric rates are 48 percent below the national average, according to Downing.
“When you can continue to grow your population by offering good jobs in a safe community where the cost of living is well below the national average, you’ll bring people in,” Young says.
St. Bernards Medical Center has called Jonesboro home for more than 100 years. It is the city’s largest employer, with more than 3,000 workers. The hospital is currently undergoing a $130 million expansion and renovation.
Northeast Arkansas Baptist Memorial Hospital employs around 1,900. It is a $400 million, 85-acre facility, 192-bed fully integrated medical campus and also houses the Heart Center of Northeast Arkansas, the Fowler Center for Cancer Care and the NEA Baptist Women’s Clinic.
Being centrally located, Jonesboro is also the retail hub for northeast Arkansas which includes 12 surrounding counties and about half a million people.
In addition to industry and economic development, Jonesboro has a vibrant cultural scene. ASU is a center of history and culture. The university’s A-State Heritage Sites Office manages several properties, that have regional and national historical significance.
The university’s A-State Heritage Sites office operates properties such as Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home; the Arkansas Delta Byways; Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center, the Lakeport Plantation, Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, the Arkansas State University Museum and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center.
In addition to biking and hiking trails, the 17,000-square-foot Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center near Craighead Forest Park is a place nature lovers may enjoy visiting. It offers educational and meeting spaces. Visitors will hear the story of the ridge atop the Mississippi Delta through outdoor and indoor exhibits and films.
When asked about the next five years of Jonesboro’s growth, Young says, “Sit back and watch us continue to grow.”
He says several industries are planning to increase the size of their workforces this year.
“Two new overpasses are in the works for Jonesboro as well as a bypass on the eastern side of the city that will run very close to Craighead Technology Park,” he says. “In Jonesboro, things are moving so fast you see changes from week to week. Five years from now, you probably won’t recognize Jonesboro.”