Arkansas Competing for 2 USDA Offices, 700 Jobs

Arkansas is one of 35 states still being considered as a potential new home for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service office and National Institute of Food & Agriculture office. Both are moving from Washington, D.C.

The project would create up to 700 jobs. The agency is looking for available buildings; it needs one to be about 90,000 SF and the other to be about 70,000 SF, according to Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Preston declined to disclose the specific sites that have been pitched to the USDA, calling it an active economic development project. But Preston said the package the AEDC submitted included sites in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway, Jonesboro and Fort Smith.

AEDC was first notified of this opportunity around June and turned in the request-for-qualifications paperwork in August. Preston said the USDA has not given any indication of when a final decision will be made. He expects the agency to pare down the list to 15 or 20, then make site visits.

AEDC is one of 67 applicants still in the running for the federal offices. The complete list is here.

The USDA has hired Ernst & Young of London, a global consulting firm the AEDC has worked with frequently on economic development projects, to help it decide. Preston said that's good because the AEDC is familiar with the firm and what it looks for.

"Obviously, we are biased here, but we think Arkansas makes a lot of sense to have these USDA offices, especially with agriculture being such a large sector, the No. 1 sector in our economy," Preston said.

The USDA is looking for a site with a low cost of doing business, quality of life for employees and a talented workforce. Preston said Arkansas checks all those boxes.

In a news release on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the department "will make the best choice for our employees and customers.

"Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers."

The department said finalists best met the offices' travel requirements, had favorable labor force statistics and had work hours that were the most compatible with all USDA office schedules.

"At this point, we've put our best foot forward," Preston said. "We're glad to still be in the running. We'll continue to wait and be ready for the next steps. Hopefully, we'll stay in that mix."