December 14, 2016 Edition

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Authority raises concerns about
adequate housing and funding

Brandon Smith
Star Herald Staff

The Northeast Arkansas Intermodal Authority discussed the direction of the board regarding insufficient housing and overall funding at its meeting in Pocahontas on Thursday.

The Intermodal has recently made headway in their search for a director with two new viable applicants. The applicants have not been named, and the board went into executive session at the close of the meeting to discuss the applicants and their qualifications.

"The prospects are looking good for the Intermodal coming into the new year," stated Executive Committee Chair Nick Manatt. "Hopefully we can get together and possibly have a new executive director to guide us throughout this next year."

Board member and treasurer Milton Smith added that the Intermodal as a whole is not going to be able to grow and that no one is going to jump into an organization that doesn't have an executive director. Manatt continued and said that once they do have a new director, they'll be better able to move forward.

Shifting to the housing situation in the area, board member and Mayor of Walnut Ridge Charles Snapp stated that there is only a certain number of employees in the general market area, and if there are not enough people, people will have to be brought in.

"They've upheld their commitment to hire local first," explained Snapp regarding the local industry. "But here's the thing, we've done some apartment construction, but people have to have a place to live to be able to work somewhere. Some of the hiring agencies reached out and we've given them contacts for places. People are wanting to move into the area and there's no place to live. I had a man stop by my office today and he said, 'Look, I've got a great worker and he's got to have a place to live in two days,' and we cannot find anything in town for him to rent. That's an issue."

In speaking of the recent economic growth, specifically with Peco Foods coming in, Manatt noted that more than half of the chicken houses in Clay County are built .

"Peco trucks are roaming the highways and you can't hardly blink your eyes without seeing one," Manatt explained.

Snapp noted that there are six to seven buildings unoccupied in Randolph, Lawrence and Clay Counties and that to get new leads they're going to have to have the properties listed.

"To get it listed on 'Site Select,' you have to have a written option on this property," explained Snapp. "We don't have the property listed that we need or the method to get that property listed because nobody seems to want to commit to a price."

Snapp went on to state that he's having the same issues in Walnut Ridge with commercial property in general, and it's something they're going to have to address as the Intermodal moves forward. He noted that the other thing the Intermodal will have to address is funding.

He noted that better pay would give the new director more of a stake in the process moving forward. He also mentioned the idea of a property tax for economic development.

"People keep coming in and they say, 'We want jobs, we want jobs.' And you bring them jobs, but you're not going to get $60, $80, or $100,000 jobs if you don't have the right property and attract the right industry. And to do that, we're going to have to fund this thing."

Snapp said that he believes his council would pass a property tax and that he believes it would be one that would indeed qualify if the core industrial development was targeted; even at a quarter to half a mil. He said that with a unified group, the Northeast Arkansas area would be better able to become a major player in the state. He noted that they've gotten a little taste of this with Peco coming in but that the "common denominator" is that everybody wants to make more money and have more jobs and that more jobs create the demand.

Snapp stated that they're kidding themselves by just putting $10,000 a year in and settling for somebody (an executive director) with no economic background. He noted that he'd rather see them step up to the plate and become serious players on the state level.

Smith stated that he didn't know about a property tax, but that he certainly agreed the Intermodal must have a permanent and significant source of funding for the future.

Board member, Randolph County Judge David Jansen stated that Clay and Lawrence counties are actually both maxed out on millage by state law and that a county can only go five mils. He noted that Randolph County is not maxed out but that they did raise it two mils last year. Smith said that even if that's the case, if they gained enough fight, there would be some sort of mechanism other than mils to fund it.

Jansen brought up that when Peco first came in, everything wasn't necessarily set in place "... but the leadership got together, and we made it happen. So even though we pass a tax and get a million dollars for this and go buy land, that isn't going to bring them here. Because we didn't have anything whenever we got Peco."

The board members agreed they first and ultimately need to hire the proper executive director to help the authority move forward.

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