ES mayor hosts forum on growing economy
The Eureka Springs Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Development joined forces with Winrock International and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission at the city’s first economic and workforce development forum Thursday, Dec. 7.
Mayor Butch Berry welcomed everyone to the forum and said he’s been working to improve the local economy since he was elected in 2014. Berry introduced Matt Twyford, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s community development regional manager. Much of his job, Twyford said, involves visiting the communities in Arkansas and supporting their goals for economic development.
“AEDC is the state entity out to help Arkansas create jobs,” Twyford said. “Without communities, we don’t have anything to sell.”
The commission’s mission statement is to create economic opportunity by attracting high-paying jobs and expanding and diversifying state and local economies, Twyford said. For a community like Eureka Springs to do this, Twyford said, it’s important to have a unified, updated message and to work with surrounding cities and the educational partners there.
“Economic development has to be a priority. It’s really something you need to keep in the front of your mind,” Twyford said. “You’re doing a really good job. I commend you. Keep it up. Get people engaged.”
Berry recalled running for mayor, saying part of his mission statement involved diversifying the economy of Eureka Springs. The city’s economy is primarily based on tourism, Berry said, when it should be more balanced. He said he has been working to change that, saying he wants the economy to be 70 percent tourism and 30 percent non-tourism. Working on the task force, Berry said, has opened his eyes to what’s going on in Eureka Springs.
“Eureka Springs is the only city in Carroll County to lose population,” Berry said. “All the other towns are gaining populations.”
There are several reasons for this, Berry said.
“A lot of it is housing. A lot of it is jobs,” he said. “We also discovered the legislature changed their unemployment system. The new legislation cut their unemployment in half.”
That’s difficult for those who go on seasonal unemployment in the winter, Berry said. To diversify the economy, he said, the task force has been looking into bringing more entrepreneurs in.
“We’re a historic town. We’re an authentic town. We’ve got that creative culture, so what can we do to bring in that type of entrepreneurship and businesses that are going to help our tax base?” Berry said.
The city’s economy depends on the sales tax, Berry said, and tourism determines how much money that tax generates.
“We’re not like Berryville that has a Walmart and a Tyson’s that can generate a huge amount of sales tax for their city,” Berry said.
The task force has shown progress over the past two years, he said. Just this year, Berry said, the city became eligible for block grant money. The city will be working on using a new infrastructure grant in 2018, he said.
“When we get that done, we’re going to be able to have more money available for the community,” Berry said.
The task force has many goals, he said.
“We want to create non-tourism jobs, increase the population … creative and encourage small affordable housing and engage in community, county, regional and state collaboratives,” Berry said. “We need to develop that type of system.”
He introduced Sandy Martin, chair of the task force. Martin said the task force has been working hard to put all the city’s information in one place, saying there’s a document containing all that information now.
“We put together everything in one handy dandy little spot, from your water rates to CAPC taxes to contact lists to real estate board to the banks,” Martin said. “That’s one key thing we did. That’s no small task.”
The task force has benefited through the help of Winrock International, Martin said. The foundation has helped the task force gather quite a bit of information on Eureka Springs’ economy, Martin said, and the task force has applied that information to create a strategic plan.
“We really want to put our feet on the street next year, get presentation teams from a variety of people in the community and hit the streets,” Martin said. “We’re at that point thanks to Winrock and what they’ve done.”
She continued, “They’ve created data and research and the guidance to help us tell a bigger and better story about Eureka Springs. We’ve got a lot to sell. We’re not without challenges, but we can get around that.”