Four Arkansas cities -- Conway, Jonesboro, Little Rock and North Little Rock -- are trying to land two branches of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the agency wants to move out of metropolitan Washington, D.C.
Together, the USDA's Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have about 700 employees.
The Arkansas bids are among at least 136 "expressions of interest" from 35 states, according to a list released by the USDA.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in August that he wants to move the two agencies outside the Beltway and invited bids from across the nation. Perdue cited the high cost of living in the D.C. area and long commutes as a deterrent to recruitment.
"It is an old saying that not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., but it is gratifying to see so many folks step forward wanting to prove that to be the case," Perdue said in a news release.
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture has about 350 employees and a budget this fiscal year of $1.5 billion, with nearly half of that budget devoted to grants for research, according to a fact sheet on its website. It works with 112 land-grant universities on such issues as food production, water quality and quantity, sustainable bioenergy, nutrition and food safety.
The Economic Research Service, has about 330 employees, including more than 200 economists and other social scientists, and a budget of $86 million to serve as the USDA's primary statistics-gatherer on such issues as farm income, farm employment, global market prices for agriculture commodities, and natural resources.
Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said Tuesday that the agency is backing four efforts in the state to lure the agencies to Arkansas. He declined, for confidentiality reasons, to identify the four cities, which later were confirmed independently.
The USDA list specifically noted the effort in Jonesboro by the city, Craighead County and several private economic-development groups. The USDA listed the Arkansas Economic Development Commission as an applicant but offered no other details.
"We're treating this like we would any project," Preston said. "We helped put out an Arkansas package for all the communities interested. We offered up buildings in each of those communities that would be available." He also declined to identify those prospective sites.
Preston said the state, with agriculture as its top industry, "would be a natural fit" for the two agencies.
"Obviously we have stiff competition with other states and cities, but we wanted to put that information forward," he said. "We're excited about being in the mix. Arkansas stands as good a chance as any."
The USDA said it intends to select a home, or new homes, for the agencies by January, with the moves being made sometime during 2019. The USDA is working with the Ernst & Young accounting firm on the possible moves.
The USDA said a new location for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would require about 90,000 square feet to house 360 employees, and a future headquarters for the Economic Research Service would need up to 70,000 square feet for 260 employees. Other criteria include proximity to an airport, commuting options for employees, technology infrastructure, capital and operating costs, community and quality-of-life issues, and workforce considerations.
Ben France, vice president for economic development at the Little Rock Regional Chamber, said the organization is working on behalf of Little Rock and North Little Rock.
"We've submitted specific buildings and sites, but for confidentiality reasons, we can't make those public yet," France said. "It's still really early in the process."
Asked to compare recruiting a government entity and a private employer, France said. "You can't offer tax credits, obviously," he said. "You have to be creative when it comes to an entity that doesn't pay taxes."
Mike Downing, executive director of Jonesboro Unlimited, said by email that the USDA proposal "represents an opportunity for Jonesboro Unlimited to show that we have the people and the resources to add to a heritage that is based in agriculture."
Downing also noted that USDA-backed research already is being done at Arkansas State University. "Part of Jonesboro Unlimited's strategic plan is to aggressively go after projects that fit into five targeted industries: agriculture, health care, manufacturing, logistics, and professional services," he said.
Jamie Gates, executive vice president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that city's effort to land the agencies.
"Filling out these RFPs [request for proposals] is our first and most-urgent job description," Gates said. "We have the ability to put these deals together. We love to do private-sector deals, and we're excited to try this. I hope the decision will be driven by a desire for a great workforce and a great community, but I wouldn't be surprised if politics and other metrics enter into it."
Perdue's announcement in August surprised members of Congress and agriculture groups that work with the two agencies.
The USDA hasn't done a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal or opened up the idea to public comment, U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., leaders of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, wrote Perdue on Sept. 7.
The USDA said the agencies could be relocated together or separately, and that no employees of either agency will be "involuntarily separated." Employees who move will receive the same base pay they receive now, according to the agency.
A recent USDA posting for postdoctoral job candidates at its Economic Research Service cited an average annual salary of $92,421.
The USDA said 91 percent of its 108,000 employees work outside metropolitan Washington D.C.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, joined at right by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., discuss ways to improve the health of the forests and how to reduce wildfires, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, is shown in this file photo.
A Section on 10/24/2018
Print Headline: Four Arkansas cities put in bids for USDA branches; units’ D.C. exit to move 700 jobs