Kathy Deck Sees Growth For Northwest Arkansas, As State and Nation Recover Slowly

As the audience filed into the Quarterly Business Analysis luncheon many told Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, they came seeking positive news.

For those focused on northwest Arkansas, Deck delivered. But for the state and nation, Deck remained cautious and at times less than optimistic about economic growth.

Evidence of that strong performance highlighted Deck’s nearly hour-long presentation at the Shewmaker Center at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Employment and housing growth and falling unemployment show the region is rebounding nicely from the recession. In fact, Deck said employment numbers have eclipsed the highs seen pre-recession.

"We’ve blown past those numbers," Deck said. "We’ve blown past them by about 10,000 jobs at the pre-recession peak."

Nationally, growth is much slower. And in the case of the state of Arkansas as a whole, "the state is not performing as well as the rest of the country," Deck said.

Some metro areas like Fort Smith and Pine Bluff continue to lose jobs. Little Rock (and central Arkansas) have shown growth, but is not back to pre-rececssion workforce numbers. Jonesboro has grown, but not enough to make a significant impact on the state economy. 

Arkansas has lost jobs in manufacturing, government and construction since April 2012. Employment for the state has grown by about 0.8 percent since last year, while the growth nationally has been about 1.6 percent. But northwest Arkansas has seen more than 5 percent growth. Housing starts have nearly doubled in the region, though Deck cautioned the bar for comparison was set pretty low after the housing market collapse in 2008.

While parts of the state and nation struggle, Deck said it is good to have an economic driver like northwest Arkansas. Thriving regions can help kick-start the state and national economy.

"For the United States to recover, economic engines like northwest Arkansas have to happen," Deck said. "There have to be pockets of the country that do great. … I see it as a necessity given our demographics, given our mix of industries we have here and all the advantages we have. We sure as heck better be doing well."

Depending on the data you mine, Deck said there are numbers that suggest the national economy is improving. UCLA researchers say there has been no economic recovery so far. Deck is more optimistic, but she cautioned that a steady, 3 percent growth rate of the GDP each month is probably too much to ask for right now.

Rising household debt, especially student loans, and a decline in disposable income aren’t helping the overall economic picture, she said.