Manufacturing A Hidden Gem in Hot Springs Metro Among Recreation & History

It’s a vibrant and strong business and industry sector for which residents are thankful for and vacationers don’t always notice.

Together, the five counties that make up the Greater Hot Springs region create one of the most diverse economies in Arkansas. Included in their regional Gross Domestic Product:

• One of the few remaining American shoe manufacturers, Munro Footwear, with headquarters in Hot Springs and plants in Hot Springs and Mt. Ida.

• Reynolds Continuous Rolling Mill in Magnet Cove, which produces the majority of the sheet aluminum from which aluminum foil is made.

• Sport boats from Alumacraft, in Arkadelphia and Hot Springs, that ply the waters of the Diamond Lakes.

• A long time Southern favorite soft drink, Grapette, from Grapette International in Malvern.

• The rubber bands that wrap your mail at the Post Office and your fresh produce at the grocery, from Alliance Rubber in Hot Springs.

The region has a strong education component, with Henderson State University, Ouachita Baptist University, College of the Ouachitas and National Park Community College; a major healthcare presence, with Mercy Medical Center, National Park Medical Center, Hot Spring County Medical Center and Baptist Health Medical Center, as well as a strong back office/business services presence with Sykes Enterprises, Xerox Corp., Weyerhauser and Accent Marketing.

But the Greater Hot Springs region’s hidden business segment is manufacturing, which goes unnoticed by the many who come to the region for vacations and entertainment.

Health services comprise the single largest economic sector of the region, with 17.4 percent in the private workforce, followed by retail trade with 15 percent. Almost 10 percent of the region’s 73,000-member private labor force is employed in manufacturing operations. Significant manufacturing clusters include forest products, aviation/aerospace, metal fabrications and plastics.

Hot Springs and Arkadelphia serve as the natural centers of the region as the two largest population and business clusters. Hot Springs serves as the shopping, entertainment and residential hub, with Arkadelphia and its two universities providing the education anchor for the five counties.

Trade and commuting patterns show how the five counties are critically interrelated through housing, employment, shopping and healthcare.

The natural ties among the counties form a region tailor made for strategic planning. The Hot Springs Metro Partnership, in 2011, completed a major strategic plan for the region encompassing four major goals.

The plan centers on downtown Hot Springs, where the combination of history, natural beauty and a burgeoning arts community offer a unique environment for business growth around which the entire region can build. The plan calls for redevelopment of downtown with increased business, shopping and housing resources, strengthening and redeveloping the corridors which connect downtown to other parts of the city and region, and using the improvements to launch the downtown area as an “innovation zone” catering to entrepreneurs and information technology firms.

The plan’s second goal calls for growing the economy of the region through targeted business recruitment efforts and focus on expanding existing businesses. Hot Springs has a vital and thriving business retention program that keeps closely in touch with its existing industry, matching businesses with potential suppliers, customers and applicable assistance programs. Planned business and industrial parks will be designed for and aimed at attracting businesses in six target areas: health and wellness, professional and business services, advanced manufacturing with an emphasis on aviation/aerospace, national and international tourism and logistics/distribution.

The strength of the Greater Hot Springs region’s economy has always been its strong small-business/entrepreneurial component, and the strategic plan’s third goal plays to that strength. That goal is for Hot Springs to become a magnet for young, professional, entrepreneurial talent, and addresses issues like increasing access to higher education, providing support and assistance to entrepreneurs and start-up companies, marketing the region as a destination for young professionals from around the nation and world who do not have to be geographically bound to a specific location for their business, and increased efforts in leadership and workforce development.

Part of the attraction of Hot Springs to that young, professional talent is the natural and cultivated attractiveness of the region, from its scenic beauty and outdoor recreation venues to its historic National Park and arts community, and building on those assets is the basis of goal four of the plan. The aim is for Hot Springs to be recognized nationally as a destination for arts, recreation and leisure, and the plan calls for strong support of continued expansion and improvement in those areas.

The emphasis will involve upgrading tourist attractions and amenities, including the development of boutique hotels and performing arts venues in the historic downtown core, while at the same time marketing those amenities to both the young professionals and the professional and upper-income retirees as draws to relocate to the region.

Hot Springs Metro Partnership and The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce President/CEO David Byerly said the plan builds on the region’s natural diversity in its economy and concentrates on strengthening sectors.

“We don’t intend to build any sector of our economy at the expense of any other sector,” Byerly said. “Rather, we’re focusing on growing our economy across a broad base, so that during the natural business cycles when one sector is underperforming, the other sectors are overperforming and the overall economic health remains good.”

Byerly said the plan is aimed at ensuring the Hot Springs region’s economic vitality and sustainability and building a base for future expansion.

“We are not making small plans,” Byerly said. “We plan to position Hot Springs for the next phase of its history, and we want to ensure that the future chapters in that history are all about success.”