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story.lead_photo.caption Graphs showing Saline County by the numbers - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau

Saline County’s population has grown 86 percent in nearly 30 years, and officials in the suburban enclave say they intend to keep the streak going by training high school graduates to meet the needs of any new business the area attracts.

The plan involves creation of a youth development center where students will be able to take classes to learn skills new businesses may need — from software development to putting cars together. This will help boost the economy and hopefully draw more residents to the area, County Judge Jeff Arey said.

Census Bureau estimates of Saline County’s 2017 population rank the county as the state’s third-fastest growing, behind Washington and Benton. Since the 2010 Census, the population grew 11 percent.

Saline County’s economy is driven by retail and food-service businesses, along with big employers such as schools and hospitals.

Arey and other county officials hope to entice more manufacturing and technology operations with the youth development center, which already has a name — the Saline County Career and Technical Education Center — although it hasn’t been built.

The center would serve recent area high school graduates who don’t want to go to college immediately, or at all.

It would provide a flexible facility that can teach students whatever skills are needed to get jobs at new companies that move into central Arkansas, Arey said.

“We would be able to take whatever it is that they want to make and hopefully train people in this facility to be able to make whatever it is that they [incoming businesses] are trying to create,” Arey said.

Schools in the county have good reputations, but don’t have the resources or space to provide the instruction the center would give, said Lamont Cornwell, executive director for the Saline County Economic Development Corp.

“If we can equip our kids for a global economy, what a great asset that will be for our county,” Cornwell said.

Arey said he began exploring the training center idea in 2013, and the county hired Stantec, a Michigan-based consulting firm, in 2015 to examine the feasibility of building it.

Stantec’s study showed that the center will cost about $38.45 million, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette previously reported. That money could come from a three-eighths percent sales tax increase, which would end in about 12 years, Cornwell said.

A map on the wall behind his desk already shows a bright red tack surrounded by purple tacks that represent the seven school districts the proposed center would serve — Bauxite, Benton, Bryant, Fountain Lake, Harmony Grove, Glen Rose and Sheridan.

Cornwell said he hopes to present the plan to the Quorum Court this summer. If the justices of the peace approve it, the tax proposal would be sent to the voters.

Mayors from the county’s two largest cities support efforts to build the center. Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs visited a similar training center in Texas and came away enthusiastic.

“If Saline County can get a center in place for our local high schools to all utilize together, we will set the bar for the state of Arkansas in workforce development,” she said.

She and other officials hope the center, paired with city developments on quality of life, will draw more people to live and work in Saline County.

“If you don’t get people to come to your community, you aren’t going to get people to move and be able to grow business,” Benton Mayor David Mattingly said.

COMPETITIVE EDGE

Population and economic growth go hand-in-hand, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

As Saline County’s population grew 11 percent since the 2010 Census, to 119,323 last year, its major cities also exhibited strong growth.

Benton, the county’s largest city, saw a 17 percent increase in population, to 35,775, from the 2010 Census to 2016, the latest estimate available for cities.

Bryant grew nearly 20 percent in the same period, to 20,005 people.

Drawing in more businesses takes a multipronged approach, and the most successful regions in the state are investing in technology-related enterprises, Jebaraj said.

Cornwell, who has worked for three years to retain existing Saline County businesses and entice new employers, said ACDI is one of Benton’s most technology-driven companies.

ACDI, a printing and payment solutions software and hardware maker, has offices throughout North America and has expanded into Latin America, according to its website.

The company’s headquarters is only a couple of blocks from Cornwell’s office.

Its walls are composed of glass panels with a logo on the side in square letters that seem to belong in a video game. ACDI broke ground on its Benton building in 2016, and employees moved in 2017.

ACDI is one of only a few technology-based businesses in the area; the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce lists Idestini Dev Studio, a web-design firm in Bryant, as the only other company of its kind in the county.

While technology-based business may be a focus for growth, manufacturing still plays a key role in the area’s economy, Cornwell said, citing Saint Gobain Proppants a France-based company that opened a facility in Bryant in 2013.

The Bryant plant creates ceramic proppants used in the process of drilling through rock for petroleum, water or natural gas.

Most of Saline County’s economic growth has come from retail and food service businesses, Cornwell said. Restaurants and shopping centers line Interstate 30, which runs through Benton.

Some increase in retail activity can be attributed to the legalization of alcohol sales in 2015, Cornwell said.

“It’s allowed us to compete,” he said, referring a Kroger grocery store that moved into Benton just before the 2015 vote.

Although the store moved in when the county was dry, it was designed with the hope that a change would be made soon.

A 2014 study from the Center for Business and Economic Research showed that if Saline County had been a wet county in 2013, it would have made just over $34 million in sales and added 141 jobs.

Since 2015, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control has licensed 141 businesses in Saline County, including grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.

Mattingly said alcohol sales have boosted the quality of life in the county, something that has been a focus during his administration.

A farmer’s market opened in Benton last month, and the trail system is growing.

Riverside Park, a $49.65 million undertaking that includes a swimming pool, senior citizens’ center and soccer complex opened in April 2017.

These upgrades were all efforts to improve quality of life, the mayor said.

The city also is launching a new marketing campaign to encourage tourism. The campaign, dubbed “Experience Benton,” is paired with efforts to have more tourist-centric events like an Independence Day party and parades.

“If you’re sitting still, you’re sitting still,” Mattingly said. “We want to keep Benton in the public eye.”

Bryant’s quality-of-life improvements have been less focused on tourism; Dabbs said she is concerned about keeping up with the pace of growth.

Her administration’s focus last year was on road improvements and renovating parks, she said.

“It’s a challenge to keep up at the pace that we’re growing,” she said.

Bryant spent $33 million in construction, primarily on street construction and maintenance, last year, not including the widening of Arkansas 5 that the Arkansas Department of Transportation has undertaken, Dabbs said.

Bishop Park is getting a $4 million upgrade, and construction will begin in the next few months in Mills Park on an all-inclusive playground accessible to children with disabilities, she said.

Dabbs came to Saline County in 2000 from Kansas City.

She liked the environment for her young children, and thought the quality of life was better than much of the rest of central Arkansas.

Cornwell said this is common for many who move to Saline County — they come for the quality of life and leave every day for work. Most work in Pulaski County, he said.

The average commute time for someone in Saline County is about 25 minutes, according to census data.

Jebaraj said most of the migration into Saline County has been from the Little Rock area. The most recent census data on county-to-county migration show that 2,118 people moved from Pulaski to Saline county from 2011 to 2015.

“A solid portion of the people coming into Saline County comes from Pulaski County,” Jebaraj said. “It [the growth] is really at the expense of Little Rock.”

Cornwell said when he first moved to central Arkansas in 1979, he opted to make the drive from Benton to Little Rock every day for work.

He wanted to raise his four kids to grow up like he did — in a smaller city.

Cornwell grew up in Dardanelle, which has a population of about 4,600. Although his kids moved around for a while —to Alabama and Pulaski County — they all settled back down in Benton. Two live and work in the city, while two commute to Little Rock.

“My goal would be to get them all to work in Saline County,” he said.

“A solid portion of the people coming into Saline County comes from Pulaski County. It [the growth] is really at the expense of Little Rock.”

— Mervin Jebaraj

Print Headline: Youth jobs center planned; Saline County aims to keep its graduates from leaving

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