Development group continues seeking input on county’s future

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published February 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 15, 2013 at 1:29 p.m.
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— After four public meetings attended by scores of Saline County residents and numerous meetings with local city and business leaders, the Saline County Economic Development Corp. is still collecting ideas and comments on the future of the county.

“We will be finished with our online survey at www.saline2020.com later this week,” said Eddie Black, executive director of the economic-development group. “We are hoping to get as many as 800 responses to our survey by then.”

Originally, the goal was to collect 400 responses online, but having met that amount, the committee will keep the survey open this week to hear from as many residents as would like to respond.

The survey asks for reactions to a list of features that could be either challenges or opportunities for the county’s economic growth. Those taking the survey are asked to judge those features as a positive, negative or something that they think will have no impact on business and job growth in the county’s communities.

The features include cost of living, quality of life, the quality of education, opportunities for higher education in the county, training services, commute times and the availability of land for development.

In addition, the survey asks those answering the online questions to prioritize a list of five industries that the county could “go after,” as it was phrased during the public meetings.

The list includes manufacturing, distribution, medical products, health care and offices.

While the economy of the county was formed around two major plants and one industry — making aluminum — Black said major manufacturing plants are “not a focus” in the county’s look into the future.

“It would be nice to have big employers like that again, but a plant or factory is unlikely,” Black said in an earlier interview about the Saline 2020 study.

Black said the public hearings held in Benton and Bryant did not turn up any big surprises, but he said some residents at the meetings in East End and the Saline County section of Hot Springs Village expressed interest in looking to the two main cities in the county for spending and jobs.

“We assumed we would find that East End would be more connected to Little Rock because of easy access to the city, rather than taking the back roads through Sardis and Bauxite to Benton and Bryant,” Black said. “But [the residents] expressed a desire for bigger roads making faster connections with Benton and Bryant for retail commerce and businesses.”

Black said East End residents said they feel safer and like dealing with the Saline County communities better than making their way to the state capital, which is roughly the same distance.

He said East End residents noted a need for better roads coming from the east to the two cities.

Access to Benton and Bryant from Interstate 30 was seen as a major boost for the local economy, but roads to the other communities were seen as challenges to growth.

During the public meeting in Hot Springs Village in January, residents of the gated community said they do more business and feel closer to Garland County and Hot Springs than Saline County, Benton and Bryant, only because there are better roads and more retail choices in the Spa City.

Several residents said Saline County businesses and their advertising are not reaching out to Village residents. Others said the road to Hot Springs is better than the ones leading to Benton or Bryant.

“There is a great need to improve [Arkansas] Highway 5,” said Jack Larsen, who retired and moved to the Village in 1996. Arkansas 5 connects the east gate of Hot Springs Village to Benton and I-30 and continues into Bryant.

Tom Arwood of Hot Springs Village, a former member of the Saline County Economic Development Corp., said plans are under way to improve Arkansas 7 that connects the west gate of the community to Hot Springs, including widening the highway to four lanes.

A desire for more retail choices, even in the two larger cities in the county, was one of the first things people mentioned in all of the meetings.

“We hear it at every meeting, but the meetings in Benton and Bryant were not as retail oriented,” Black said. “We were pleased with the participation.”

During the meetings, Black said he was struck by the large amount of health care facilities in the community, and said they could be a start in attracting more medical and health care businesses.

“Even outside [Saline Memorial] Hospital, you have great facilities like the Arkansas Service Center in Haskell, Timber Ridge and Rivendale, along with assisted-living and nursing-home facilities,” Black said. “We have a major developed industry in the county, and that has not gone unnoticed, but in the study was a realization of how big it is.”

As the research stage ends, Black said the economic development group is waiting to see how the Boyette Strategic Advisors will digest the information that has been gathered.

Del Boyette, who facilitated the meetings for the economic-development group, has said a proposed five-year strategic plan will be made public in March.

“This effort will provide a comprehensive look at how Saline County is prepared to compete over the next five years,” said Shane Broadway, chairman of the Saline County Economic Development Corp. “It will help us confirm positive attributes of the county and identify opportunities to enhance our resources and improve our competitiveness.”

To take the survey, go to www.saline2020.com. For more information, call Black at (501) 840-3187.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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