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ROGERS -- Northwest Arkansas' economy will continue to grow, but it's part of a state economy showing a troubling lack of vitality outside of a few healthy pockets, according to the annual state of the region report.

Arkansas outside of the northwest corner, the Jonesboro area in the northeast and the central Arkansas region of Little Rock shows either slow growth, no growth or outright decline, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

"Almost all of the growth has been in those metro areas," he said. "The Fort Smith and Hot Springs metro areas are not gaining while Pine Bluff is losing jobs."

Jebaraj gave the regional report Friday to 1,200 business and community leaders at the annual forecast luncheon hosted by the research center. This year's luncheon was held at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers.

He said afterward statewide infrastructure needs such as highways are vital to Northwest Arkansas' growth, but are harder to pay for when much of the state's economy is weak. The lagging pace of economic growth in much of Arkansas is particularly notable now because it comes at a time of general national prosperity, he said.

The regional economy remains strong even though growth isn't expected to be as robust as in the previous four years, according to forecasts including Jebaraj's.

"I think people around the country are on pins and needles about whether the economy will remain good, but the data shows that rumors of a demise are not true," said Benton County Judge Barry Moehring.

Kelly Johnson, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, said the labor market in the region remains very tight.

"I have a full-time position with benefits right now that has a total of one applicant. What I heard today confirmed that Northwest Arkansas is the healthiest place in the state," she said after attending the conference.

One factor in the very tight labor market, Jebaraj said in his remarks to the group, is opioid addiction. An estimated 40,000 people have dropped out of the workforce in Arkansas because of opioid addiction problems, he said.

Third District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, attended the luncheon. Womack said he trusted the forecaster's data, but sees little sign of Northwest Arkansas' growth slowing, at least population-wise.

As for the slower growth outside of the Washington-Benton county area, Womack said the Fort Smith region is in transition. It has historically been a manufacturing center and is shifting to a more diverse economy. He also said all regions of the state need to concentrate on workforce development, improving the skills in demand in a changing economy.

"If workforce development is not a discerning chamber's [of commerce] utmost priority, it will be," he said.

Fastest growth in jobs in NWA

• Construction

• Government

• Education and Health

• Manufacturing

Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics

NW News on 02/02/2019

Print Headline: Northwest Arkansas economy outpaces others

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