Jonesboro Development Steady Despite Economy

by Jack Whitsett  on Monday, Sep. 3, 2001 12:00 am  

Contrary to prevailing economic trends, Jonesboro commercial development has remained steady, business leaders said last week.

Retail projects, in particular, are ignoring slumping sales and profits, and the level, open acreage of the northeast Arkansas city is thick with new or remodeled shopping centers.

"We have nearly a million square-feet in this market," said Bruce Burrow of the Belz Burrow real estate firm. "We're virtually full."

Veteran banker and community leader Wallace Fowler also sounded an optimistic note.

"We have a lot of building going on," Fowler said. "I don't think it's the most active [development period in recent history, but] overall, our economy's good in Jonesboro."

Jonesboro, one of the fastest-growing cities in Arkansas, has recently created a little elbow room as well, having annexed 45 square miles, said Mayor Hubert Brodell.

The biggest development news in Jonesboro — or anywhere else in the state — is Nestlé USA's decision to build a $165 million prepared foods manufacturing plant, which is expected to employ about 1,000 people when it opens in 2003. The plant will spur commercial development, Fowler said.

"Nestlé is a big, big plus for the northeast Arkansas area," he said.

Fowler, chairman and CEO of the Bank of Jonesboro, revealed plans for a new main bank building.

"We will probably start construction [next year]," he said. "We're out of space in our present facility."

The building, to be located near the Indian Mall shopping center, may include some commercial space, Fowler added.

Shopping Centers

Among Belz Burrow's planned projects is the Caraway Plaza shopping center, to be anchored by a Hastings music and book store, Burrow said.

"We're totally retenanting that property" at a cost of $5 million - $6 million, he said. A former Harvest Foods site will make room for clothes retailers T.J. Maxx and Old Navy. The firm also is working on "a major retail development in Jonesboro," Burrow said.

In addition to the Jonesboro projects, Belz Burrow is developing other shopping centers in the area, Burrow said.

Porter Commons in Blytheville will enclose 364,000 SF and will be anchored by a Wal-Mart. In addition, the firm is selling an adjoining 14 acres for a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse store, which will bring the total enclosed space to about 500,000 SF, Burrow said. The building previously occupied by Wal-Mart in Blytheville is another Belz Burrow project and includes a JCPenney department store.

And a few miles north of Jonesboro in Paragould, Belz Burrow is developing West Point, another mall anchored by Wal-Mart. The old Wal-Mart building, also a Belz Burrow property, is full, along with the rest of the Town West center, Burrow said. The center is home to Arkansas State University's new Paragould campus, which just recently opened.

Food Processing Momentum

Jonesboro has developed a track record of winning major food processing plants, of which Nestlé is the latest example. ConAgra Poultry Co. of El Dorado and Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart run facilities in Jonesboro.

In March, the Frito-Lay Co. said it would expand its Jonesboro manufacturing facility and add 100 new jobs.

The Frito-Lay plant opened in 1997 to produce Lay's chips, Ruffles Potato Chips, Cheetos snacks, Fritos and Doritos chips and other snack foods. The company has hired 520 people since the facility opened, according to the Arkansas Department of Economic Development. The new project will add more than 100,000 SF to the plant.

Frito-Lay Vice President Bob Crain plugged Jonesboro in his remarks at the announcement.

"The state of Arkansas and the city of Jonesboro have been wonderful partners for growth over the past few years," Crain said. "What better way to thank them than to choose Jonesboro as our site for this new expansion?"

The University Factor

ASU provides a reliable economic stimulus for Jonesboro each year, currently undergoing $120 million worth of construction. The university's board of trustees authorized a $10 million bond issue in January to finance an apartment complex and athletic track on the Jonesboro campus. The 100-unit apartment complex will serve married and graduate students.

Among the current ASU projects are a $30 million student center and $3 million telecommunications/computer services center, The Jonesboro Sun newspaper reported.

In addition, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority authorized funds last month from a bond issue toward a $20 million biosciences institute on the ASU campus.


Jonesboro has had some success attracting foreign investment as well. ADED's latest report shows four foreign companies currently doing business in the city, employing up to 1,200. The overseas firms are as follows:

• Brambles Equipment Services Inc., a construction equipment supplier headquartered in Sydney, Australia;

• Trailmobile Inc., a semi trailer manufacturer owned by The Gemala Group of Jakarta, Indonesia;

• Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., a corrugated shipping container maker owned by Jefferson Smurfit Group Plc of Dublin, Ireland; and

• Clean Services, a uniform supply company owned by BET Plc. of London.

Finally, public development continues to surge in the town, with Parker Park and Miles Park in north Jonesboro being upgraded and remodeled through $650,000 obtained from the city government and federal Community Development Block Grants, the Sun reported.

Jonesboro grants coordinator Jim McKinnon said the project included a community center and, possibly, soccer and football fields, a walking area and tennis courts.

The 19,000-SF building at Parker Park contains office space, community meeting rooms, two full-size indoor basketball courts and a community police station, Brodell said.

Dark Clouds

Aside from the economy, potential problems loom that could slow the development train.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a cut in essential air service funding to 17 airports in the nation, including Jonesboro Municipal Airport. Without the subsidy, scheduled passenger service would end, said Mike Medlock, the airport's vice chairman.

Rep. Marion Berry D-Ark., who represents Jonesboro and northeast Arkansas in Congress, will work with other members of Arkansas' delegation to restore the funding, he said.

"We do not fully realize the economic impact at this time," Medlock said. "We do know that the presence of scheduled service impacts our local economy."

Companies looking to expand or relocate look for scheduled air service, Brodell said.

"It's vital that we keep it," he said.

Big Sky Airlines of Billings, Mont. serves Jonesboro with daily flights to El Dorado and Dallas. Last year the airline received about $825,000 in subsidies from DOT to continue the low-profit routes.

But the Jonesboro area appears to have considerable momentum built up from the last few years, and with a number of projects still on the drawing board, the work and opportunities continue to pump up boosters and profits.

"We're happy campers," Burrow said.



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