Thursday, July 03, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Celebrating much more

This holiday weekend, there’s a lot to celebrate besides Independence Day.

A new jobs report Thursday shows the U.S. economy added about 288,000 jobs, lowering the unemployment rate to 6.1 percent. That’s some of the best economic news since 2008, when the economy began to decline, culminating with the collapse of the housing market and with it, the country’s financial sector.

Jobs reports are often revised as more data is collected so we are usually cautious about being too celebratory, but not this Fourth of July.

We’re optimistic that the economy is finally starting to rev up. The uptick seen in Sherwood and elsewhere indicates that a local rebound is happening, too.

Under the guidance of the aptly named Barry Sellers, the Sherwood Chamber of Commerce’s economic developer, a number of new businesses are set to open. A Harp’s grocery store on Hwy. 107, a CVS store at Kiehl Avenue and JFK Boulevard and a major call center for health-care companies are among the highlights.

Sellers lives and works in town. He routinely reports to the city council, whose members won’t tolerate poor results. He’s also focused on helping Sherwood expand liquor sales to grocery stores and restaurants in all parts of the city. That could bring in more major restaurant chains on Hwy. 107 instead of relegating them to Hwy. 67/167. Gravel Ridge could be the next restaurant row. Who would have envisioned that a decade ago?

Even smaller communities like Beebe, thanks to the new Walmart Supercenter, are seeing a flurry of business activity, and there’s even word that Lowe’s is planning a new store there. In Lonoke, a new I-40 interchange will attract businesses.

It can’t be long before Jacksonville sees its share of gains. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce has two ribbon cuttings planned this month. That may seem modest, but in the dog days of summer, it’s more than we’ve seen in the last few years.

Jacksonville’s chamber seems re-energized, too, having added some new staff members, among other things. It only needs to land a few more big companies to gain momentum. Harbor Freight in the old Kmart is a good start.

Jacksonville’s economic consultant, who lives 300 miles away in Oklahoma, still has the city council’s backing — paying him nearly $500,000 in four years — and is long overdue to bring businesses to Jacksonville. He’s made a lot more than Sellers and has little to show for it.

As they say, all politics is local. Well, so, too, is the economy.

But Jacksonville’s best hope to boost its economy is to get its own school district by breaking away from the Pulaski County Special School District. Residents can make that happen on Sept. 16 when the issue will be put to voters.

It’s a plan that, to the Jacksonville chamber’s credit, has been led by some of its most prominent members. New schools and good test scores will encourage middle class families to move here. With that comes new businesses.

As one sage in the Jacksonville business community, Harold Gwatney, pointed out in a recent interview, the city needs a new plan, and there’s no better place to start than by improving its schools.

As he put it: “I’m not trying to say this to be derogatory…but I think we’ve lost our directional control. Jacksonville hasn’t grown in the last year or two. I don’t see a lot of growth in it. If you look around, there’s not many new things happening. We have a lot of vacancies.

“The school situation has always been a problem,” Gwatney said. “We had good people on the school board, but, when it came time to do something, it seemed like that the majority of the people were on the south side of the river instead of on the north side and as a result…we didn’t get the first choice on things the Pulaski County school board had to offer.”

But the city is on the right track. Probably by 2016, Jacksonville will be in charge of its own schools and as a result, the city will reap the economic gains that come with it as can be seen in Cabot, Beebe and Lonoke. Prosperity is just around the corner.