Tourism Strong in Hot Springs; Arkansas Economy Continues to Recover


Tourism Strong in Hot Springs; Arkansas Economy Continues to Recover
Michael Pakko

Although Arkansas' economic recovery has lagged the rest of country since the recession, growth here has increased over the last couple of years.

That was among the findings shared by economist Michael Pakko at the Hot Springs regional economic forecast on Wednesday. The conference, one of two hosted by Arkansas Business this year, took place at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

Pakko, the chief economist and state economic forecaster at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Institute for Economic Advancement, said that from 2014-15, the Arkansas economy grew at an average rate of 3.3 percent. From 2010-2013, the average growth was only 1.5 percent.

More: See Pakko's full presentation here.

In the six and a half years since the recession, the U.S. economy has grown by 14.5 percent, he said.

According to Pakko, Hot Springs’ economic trends line up with that of the state.

"As Hot Spring goes, so goes the state," Pakko said. "What we’ve seen in Arkansas for the last two years is growth that looks halfway decent."

Pakko's presentation looked at five counties in southwest Arkansas: Clark, Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery and Pike.

In those areas, the industries with the biggest workforces are retail, leisure and hospitality and health care.

"We represent a very important service to those five counties," National Park Medical Center CEO Jerry Mabry said as part of a panel of Hot Springs health care leaders.

According to CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs President Tony Houston, the health care industry in Hot Springs is growing but focused on a transition "from volume to value."

For Levi Hospital President and CEO Pat McCabe, that means a health industry that focuses on solving long-term problems.

"What is the health status of our community and how can we move the needle?" McCabe said. "Obesity, teen pregnancy and suicide are some of the issues. Obesity is a real killer. If we can move the needles we can lower the cost of insurance for you as an employer."

McCabe said employee wellness programs one way to improve health across communities.

In an economic panel discussion, Oaklawn Park General Manager Eric Jackson said the tourism and hospitality industry is "doing great" and has added 250 jobs over the last few years. He said he expects growth over the next 18 months to continue but slow down.

"Our biggest challenge is finding a workforce," Jackson said. "Our employees need to be a good reflection of Arkansas and of Hot Springs."

In response to his comments about workforce, Henderson State University President Glen Jones said that the school is developing a hospitality management program, although it's likely several years away from being offered as a degree.

Jones said that people like Jackson are the ones "buying the product that [Henderson] is producing."