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Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 10:55 a.m.
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Baker: Conway County still pursuing jobs

By Tammy Keith

This article was published March 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

MORRILTON — Brandon Baker, CEO of the Conway County Economic Development Corp., said that although Tuesday’s sales-tax election was unsuccessful, “we are not giving up on trying to get jobs.”

The countywide one-fourth percent sales tax to attract and retain jobs was defeated 1,054 to 852, or by a 55 to 45 percent margin.

“It would have been used as a recruitment tool,” Baker said. “It would allow us to invest in buildings, infrastructure or equipment that a prospective business might need help on when considering Conway County over other communities.”

He said the tax would have cost an additional 25 cents on a $100 purchase and would not have applied to groceries or fuel. The tax would have been overseen by a five-member board, appointed by County Judge Jimmy Hart and approved by the Conway County Quorum Court.

“It’s pretty simple — the people of Conway County have spoken, and they chose not to endorse the tax,” Hart said. “It was fairly close, but all it takes is one vote, and the people have spoken. We’re going to move forward.”

“To be honest, I don’t know why it failed,” Baker said. “This is a very difficult issue to explain, unlike a tax for a jail or a hospital

that you can actually go see and utilize. This is something we consider as an investment, even though it is a tax.

“There is a strong need in our community for jobs, and that’s something the people have made clear over and over again — that they want jobs. We didn’t do this for us as a chamber or for Conway Development Corp. — we did this for the community. Nevertheless, we will continue to compete aggressively for jobs, but this would have made our job easier, and we would have had a higher success rate in the job announcements.”

Baker pointed to Peco Foods Inc., which announced last week it would locate poultry facilities in Randolph and Clay counties and bring 1,000 new jobs to the area.

“The community locally invested $700,000,” he said, which comes from a tax. “That’s a resource they have that we do not have.”

Peco did not look at Conway County, Baker said, but it illustrates what incentives can do.

“You have to have a bargaining chip, and quite frankly, when communities look at us over another community that has an economic-development funding mechanism, the other community will always win, and that is a fact,” Baker said.

He said that since 1984, Conway County has lost 2,800-plus “primary jobs. We have gained back only 700.”

The latest industrial announcement in Conway County was in November when furniture manufacturer Vinhlong-Arkansas Ltd. announced it was coming to Morrilton. The company bought the plant vacated by Bosch Security Systems, which moved to Mexico.

The furniture company is expected to employ 75 people over a three-year period and increase the workforce by 20 percent each year afterward.

“It’s going very well,” Baker said, but more jobs are needed. “We always need to be able to diversify.”

Hart said that “from an elected official’s perspective, it takes incentives to recruit industry in here.”

He said Vinhlong-Arkansas located in Morrilton because it was “able to acquire some property at a very good price, and we thank Bosch Industries for that.”

Baker said the election cost “around $35,000” and that the Conway County Economic Development Corp. will reimburse the county.

He said he didn’t know if another attempt will be made to pass an economic-development tax.

“A lot of people don’t want new taxes, point blank; it doesn’t matter,” Baker said. “However, if we don’t invest in our community, why would we expect anybody else to?”

Hart said he doubts that another sales-tax initiative will be put forth anytime soon.

“This was economic development, and our county quorum court has always had the opinion, ‘Let’s let the people decide what they want.’ I wouldn’t think we’d be dealing with it for a while,” Hart said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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