June 21, 2017 Edition

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Housing is major need for
continued growth in LawCo.

Custom-Pak plant manager Andrew McDonnough (left) visits with Dr. Brett Cooper, chair of the Lawrence County Chamber Economic Development Committee, about the need for more employees, which is being hampered by a lack of available housing in the county. The Lawrence County Steering Committee and the Chamber hosted a housing forum on June 14 to discuss the housing shortage.
TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl

Gretchen Hunt

The Lawrence County Steering Committtee hosted a housing forum on June 14 in Black Rock with assistance from the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce.

"The steering committee, after looking at the county's strategic plan, felt like housing was a place to put some focus," Emily Hathcock with the East Arkansas Planning and Development District said.

Hathcock serves as a facilitator for the steering committee, which is made up of representatives from throughout the county.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said the county is poised to see a growth in population, something that would be good to see happen before the next census.

"For years, Walnut Ridge and Lawrence County have been stagnant," Snapp said. "We have more growth, more jobs than we have housing for. To get the people to fill the jobs to keep attracting the businesses that are looking, we need investors building spec homes. We need investors building rental properties. We need people and we need them bad."

During the forum, a panel consisting of Andrew McDonnough with Custom-Pak, Alan Risley with Peco and Lorretta Hayes with AID Temporary Service, echoed the vital need for additional housing.

McDonnough said Custom-Pak has been working very short-handed, operating 30 to 60 employees short since January.

"We need both skilled and unskilled labor," he said. "We are pulling from Paragould, Jonesboro and Bono, but transportation expenses are prohibitive for workers. We can't attract workers without housing."

Risley said Peco Foods is in the same position as Custom-Pak with 200 people needed by August and discussion of an expansion that would require even more employees.

Peco is bussing workers from Paragould and has employees carpooling from as far away as Doniphan, Mo.

Hayes said when she is trying to place individuals in jobs in the area, housing is always a major concern.

"You do what you can to try to help them find something, but when there is nothing available, there is nothing you can do," she said.

Custom-Pak also has a possible expansion on the table but has had to put it on hold at this time.

"When you can't staff your current needs, how can you expand," McDonnough said.

Peco representatives said housing within a 20 to 25 mile radius of the plant would be attractive to current employees who are having to commute, as well as potential employees.

Several contractors were in attendance, and the need for land to build on with the necessary infrastructure was discussed.

"We have to reach out," Snapp said. "We need more property owners who are willing to sell, and we need more contractors."

In addition, Bryan Exum, area director for USDA Rural Development, shared information about different programs available through his office for residents, contractors and municipalities.

Exum said Lawrence County had the largest single-family housing case load in the 1980s.

"I would love to see that again."

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