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Roger Lewis: Is Conway's economy slipping?

Posted: December 13, 2013 - 5:13pm

Many measures indicate how the economy of a city, county, state, or nation is doing. I’ll begin by focusing on one measure, unemployment rate and then follow with other indicators. I’ll end with a conclusion about Conway’s economy in December 2013.

As shown in the table, the unemployment rate in the US dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.0 percent in the year from October 2012 to October 2013. During the same period, however, the Arkansas rate increased four-tenths of a percentage. In Faulkner County the increase was six-tenths of a percentage and in Conway the increase was nine-tenths of a percentage point. These are not comforting figures and they are not restricted to a one-year analysis. Unless there is a sharp decline in unemployment figures in November and December, Conway’s unemployment rate for 2013 will be the highest in 20 years.

The unemployment rates for the US and Arkansas that are published in news releases are seasonally adjusted rates, which differ slightly from the unadjusted rates presented here. Seasonally adjusted rates are based on larger samples of time in order to reduce monthly fluctuations. Because seasonally adjusted rates are not available for cities and counties, the table uses unadjusted rates in all four categories.

Faulkner County’s workforce is 57,790 of which 30,457 (52.8%) live in Conway and 2,125 (6.9%) are unemployed. The remainder of the workforce, 27,333 (47.2%) live outside of Conway. Of these 27,333 1825 (6.7%) are unemployed. This is the first time since 2000, when the Arkansas Department of Workforce Service first published city unemployment data, that the unemployment rate for Conway has exceeded that of the workforce residing outside of the city. Combining these numbers, there are 3,950 (6.8%) unemployed workers in Faulkner County.

One might become a little complacent when comparing the unemployment rates of Conway and Faulkner County with other places with higher rates. A 6.8% unemployment rate does not sound drastic. But when the percentage is presented as 3,950 unemployed workers, reality sets in. Also, the actual number of unemployed people who want to work is even higher because unemployment figures do not include the long-term unemployed who are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

As for specific sectors of the economy that are producing these unemployment numbers, the Arkansas Employment and Security Division does not release unemployment figures for different business sectors. Thus, there is no data on what types of businesses are laying off workers.

Other indicators besides unemployment rate tell how an economy is doing. For Conway, residential and commercial construction is down more than 30% from the same period in 2012. Single-family residential building permits are down 18%. Sales tax collections are essentially stagnant, increasing less than one-half of one percent through September of this year. Hotel sales are up a fraction of a percent from last year.

Restaurant sales are up less than 2%. Hewlett Packard, Southwest Energy and Acxiom reported significant lay-offs. Other segments of the economy such as education, government, and heath care do not have monthly measures that reveal trends. However, these segments appear strong and they offset some of the weak areas. Our growth rate may be flat or modest at best, but certainly it is not in a decline.

Of course, there is always the “Thank God for Mississippi” response to any unfortunate news. We are better off than the 10 counties (mostly in Eastern Arkansas) where unemployment rates exceed 10 percent. The highest is Lee County (Marianna), which has a 11.1 percent unemployment. Although Faulkner County’s 6.8 percent ranks as 18th lowest in Arkansas, one year ago it ranked 13th. At the other end of the spectrum, Northwest Arkansas now has six counties with unemployment rates that are under 6 percent. Carroll County (Eureka Springs) is lowest with 5.0 percent.

We have a very diverse economy and that is our strength. While large corporate employers have fluctuations that significantly affect unemployment, our institutions and small businesses remain stable. Faulkner County’s employers include approximately 60 government and education agencies and some 2700 private establishments. Many of these are small businesses (2 to 10 employees), whose importance should not be overlooked. Our institutions provide stability but growth will depend on private establishments flourishing. While our economy is soft now, I am optimistic about the future, even though it may take several years to regain its past vitality.

There are many families in Faulkner County who are struggling and need help. Local food banks run by charities and churches report that they exhaust their supplies weekly. The Bethlehem House for the homeless and other social services agencies have all experienced heavier demands. These services are only stopgap measures that provide for essential needs until employment is found. Extending unemployment benefits, food stamps and job creation projects are important if we are to meet the needs of the unemployed.

As the Christmas season is celebrated, there are many opportunities to help those in need. Please be mindful of those less fortunate in our community and be generous.

I thank my friend Chris Spatz for editing and helping me with this article.

You can obtain more information on the economy of Conway and Faulkner County by going to the Pulse of Conway website www.pulseofconway.com.

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