With a boost from business and business friendly policies, Independence County has vaulted to the top of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's incentive tier rankings.
Effective July 1, the county moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1 in the AEDC's annual rankings, placing it among the top 15 counties in the state. The AEDC ranks all 75 Arkansas counties, placing them in one of four tiers determined by poverty rate, population growth, per capita personal income and unemployment rate.
The tier upgrade is both a sign of economic success and a bragging point that can be used to further promote and enable business growth, Independence County Judge Robert Griffin said.
"It would be my belief that, A, this is a result of the work that we have been able to achieve, but all the glory goes to our job creators out there, our business and our industry," Griffin said. "But what assistance we've been able to give we've given the best we can."
A county's ranking is determined for each of the four variables using a consistent source, then the four rankings are totaled and divided by four to get the overall ranking.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 Quick Facts, Independence County's population was 37,504 (up from 36,647 in 2010), its percentage of people below the poverty line was 15.9 percent and per capita income was $22,035 (2012-2016). The county's May unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, down from a two-year peak of more than 6 percent.
Griffin, who has held office since 2011, said a major factor driving Independence County's move to the top tier is new or expanded businesses — primarily in the county seat of Batesville — affecting the unemployment rate.
Mainstays like utility vehicle maker Intimidator Inc., headquartered in Batesville; Bad Boy Mowers; poultry and poultry related operations like Peco, Ozark Mountain Poultry and Custom Craft Poultry and a new residency program for White River Health System have all contributed to the success, Griffin said.
Retail and new and remodeled restaurants and fast food franchises are also part of the improvement, Griffin said.
Griffin said community and business leaders have either tried to stay out of the way of growth or assist where they could through land acquisitions and long-term lease agreements, like those that helped Intimidator build a 200,000-SF facility, Peco to install a 2-acre refrigeration unit and Ozark Mountain Poultry construct a feed mill.
"We're doing the things that we need to do to help them do things they do best, which is recruit jobs," Griffin said.
Each prospective new business has its own demographic, requiring things like a 50,000 traffic count on a nearby highway or a pool of 10,000 potential office workers in a three-mile radius, Griffin said.
That means Batesville and Independence Country aren't necessarily in the running for every new enterprise, Griffin said, but they have the numbers to be competitive. While the population is near 40,000, an additional 10,000 to 20,000 come from outside the radius, which helped drive $10,215,000 in sales tax collection last year, Griffin said.
"We trade larger than what we actually represent from a demographic standpoint," he said.
Of Arkansas' 75 counties, 18 saw a tier change in either direction. The 15 Tier 1 counties for 2018 are Independence, Grant, Craighead, Pulaski, Benton, Washington, Madison, Boone, Baxter, Greene, Sebastian, Faulkner, Garland, Saline and Lonoke.
The tier rankings also impact benefits from specific incentive programs of the Consolidated Incentive Act and Tourism Development Act. Those include income tax credits from Advantage Arkansas, payroll tax rebates through Create Rebate and tax credits for new locations or expansion under ArkPlus.
The tier status and incentives can only add to the county's momentum, Griffin said.
"It's certainly a recruitment tool because the more things going on in an area the more the desire to say "'Hey, there are good things happening in that area and that's somewhere we need to be,'" he said.