Tuesday, July 23, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Looking at trends

While Jacksonville has remained stagnant for at least a decade as far as population and economic growth are concerned, the recently published Metro Trends confirms that its nearby neighbors to the north continue to flourish.

According to the recently published Metro Trends from Metroplan, Cabot, Austin and Ward have continued their growth, while Jacksonville’s population actually diminished by 46 people, or 0.2 percent, between 2010 and early 2013.

Jacksonville leaders have long maintained the city can’t emerge from this slump until it has its own school district — a situation now in the hands of the state Board of Education, the Attorney General’s Office, the federal courts and ultimately voters.

“I’m not an expert, but on balance (a Jacksonville school district) would help,” Jonathan Lupton, the author of the report, said. “Schools are a factor in relocation when kids get school age.”

Population growth in Central Arkansas has slowed, but still it increases.

Locally, the largest increase by county is for Faulkner and Saline Counties — about 2 percent.

Overall, growth in Arkansas has declined faster than the national average since the 1990-2000 decade, according to the report.

From 2010-2012, Lonoke County grew at an annual rate of 1.1 percent, less than half of the 2.6 percent annual growth rate between 2000 and 2010. Although its growth rate was the slowest in the four-county Little Rock/North Little Rock/Conway Metropolitan Statistical Area from 2010-2013 at 0.7 percent, it was the only county whose growth rate didn’t decline. Faulkner County declined from 2.8 percent per year to 2 percent. Saline County, which grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent from 2000-2010, dropped to 1.9 percent from 2010 to 2012.

Among larger communities, Bryant’s growth between 2010 and early 2013 was greatest at 12.4 percent, followed by Conway and Greenbrier at 6.4 percent, Benton at 3.5 percent and Cabot grew by 3.3 percent.

That 3.3 percent is an increase of 794 residents to 24,570 from 2010 to 2013. Austin added only 201 residents, but that represented an increase of 9.9 percent — three times Cabot’s rate of population increase. Ward added 307 residents, an increase of 7.5 percent, to a population of 4,374. Lonoke added seven residents, an increase of 0.2 percent to 4,252. England and Carlisle each lost population.

Lonoke County as a whole picked up 2,134 residents, an increase of 3.1 percent.

In Pulaski County, Sherwood’s population increased 1.6 percent to 29, 982, while Jacksonville’s population fell 0.2 percent to 28,318 residents. Countywide, the population increased by 2 percent.

If you have a decent job or income, well it feels as if the economy is climbing back out of a deep hole, especially if you’re invested in the stock market, which is at an all-time high. But, according to the Metro Trends report, the middle class is shrinking and it’s easier to fall out of it than to climb out of it.

Employment is flat, the banks and big corporations are sitting on piles of money the economy needs in play, even as construction starts to languish.

The report takes a broad look at growth and development trends in what it calls the Little Rock/North Little Rock/Conway Metropolitan Statistical Area, and there’s not a lot of good to report. “Central Arkansas employment has grown slowly in the Great Recession’s aftermath,” according to the report. “The region’s job-loss rate ran below the U.S. average during the crisis, and local unemployment has stayed below U.S. levels. However, the local job recovery has also run more slowly than average.”

While 2012 saw a small spike in single-family construction permits, that has slowed in the first quarter of 2013, according to Lupton.

The good news is that Jacksonville saw the most growth with 55 units in construction; the bad news is that those are part of the Little Rock Air Force Base’s once-troubled housing privatization initiative. Those units are part of a staged development that started in 2004 as replacement housing for airmen and their families. It does not represent growth in the Jacksonville area. Still, it’s good news for the airmen, for local businesses, contractors, tradesmen and suppliers will still reap some benefit.

With slow growth in employment, slow population growth and subdued housing construction, the middle class continues to wither, according to the report, and automation continues to replace human employees. The future of work is depending on “hyper-human” tasks such as emotional skills, intuition, imagination and development of insights and hypotheses.

Little Rock architect and futurist Bill Asti has recommended for maybe a decade that the area needs to attract manufacturing all right, but digits instead of widgets. Asti recommends recruiting not smokestack industry, such as Big River Steel, but companies that make movies, entertainment, video games and educational content for the ever-growing digital age.