Jonesboro Economy Keeps Distance From Pandemic Woes

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It’s a sight that has become almost as common as masks.

Drive through a given residential neighborhood in a given city these days and one can see, interspersed from curb to curb, the evidence of home improvements underway. Old drywall, broken lamps, worn out chairs, porcelain fixtures that have seen better days and more sit waiting for trash pickup.

Apparently, people are spending so much time at home during the coronavirus pandemic that they’ve decided to spend their money there.

On a larger scale, that’s what appears to be happening in the Jonesboro area. After a few months of dormancy, the local economy is getting up to speed as business owners and developers use unexpected savings, federal stimulus money and assistance programs to build, enhance and improve.

“Things are going way better than any of our employers expected,” said Josh Brown, principal in brokerage and development, at real estate firm Haag Brown Commercial.

Brown noted business traffic, construction and development that would add up to a good year in normal times and, taken together, seem to defy economic downturns elsewhere. Not to mention Jonesboro also had to dig out from significant damage caused by an April tornado.

From furniture stores to boat and camper dealerships to restaurants, Brown said, clients are “telling us they are having the most profitable months they have had ever.”

Mark Young, president and CEO of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, said a diverse economy that includes education, health care, agriculture, manufacturing, retail and service has helped the area adapt economically.

Some companies are tailoring their businesses to people’s needs, developing new products for which the pandemic has created a demand, and others are simply continuing to do business while rolling with social distancing requirements and other COVID-related limitations.

“I have to say that I am so pleased, as I look around and a lot of our businesses have really adjusted to the needs of the community and to the needs of their clients,” Young said. “They’ve changed their business models. Some of them have changed products that they sell and make.”

NicePak, maker of sanitary wipes, has actually added jobs, Young said. The Jonesboro branch of consumer goods maker Unilever began making hand sanitizer and local restaurants and retailers are embracing the concept of personal shoppers, among other adaptations.

Young said sales tax revenue from January to June was $20.8 million, up from $20.1 million for the same period last year.

“It’s modest. We’ll take it. Because as you know after the first quarter things got kind of interesting,” Young said.

Brown noted three major areas of development in Jonesboro that he said account for around 75% of the city’s activity. 

The $8 million Ritter Communications data center is a major part of the activity in the Hill Park area that includes a new Armor Bank and various medical groups’ construction projects. Haag Brown recently closed on approximately 7 acres in the Hilltop/north Jonesboro area that will represent a multi-million dollar land development featuring a Tommy’s Express Carwash and more medical construction adjoining NEA Baptist Memorial.

The intersection of Caraway and Highland, site of the old Indian Mall, is humming with the kind of activity that for a decade had been shifting to Red Wolf Boulevard and is now trending back. Brown said there is heavy interest in the Sears building, one of the most notable retail structures in the city.

“Probably our biggest retail news in a few years will come with that building,” he said.

Business may have come to a standstill in the early months of the pandemic, Brown said, but an economy that had been thriving for 10 years gave companies a cushion, and federal help in the form of PPP loans and other stimulus money has given people confidence in spending.

“At some point, at least the people I interact with, they stopped believing the world was ending and they started spending money,” Brown said.

Young said the residential market is keeping pace as well. Over the first six months of the year, there were 389 permits for residential work, up from 265 in 2019. The value of residential permits is $36.5 million versus $31.4 million last year; 242 new homes were sold compared to 203 in 2019; and existing home sales improved to 1,140 from 1,059.

Young noted unemployment in the area was at 8% compared to 3% pre-pandemic. And it remains to be seen, when fall enrollment figures are available, how much the start of classes at Arkansas State University will impact the economy, especially if much of the learning is done remotely.

But the numbers so far look better than they were expected to several months ago, Young said.

“You look at the statistics and, again, we always want to do better and we always want to do more,” he said. “But all things considered, I have to say that we have fared relatively well. We still have areas we want to see growth in and are looking forward to but we are cautiously optimistic.”