Searcy Mayor Kyle Osborne called economic development “a priority for our community” based on input the city has received from residents.
According to the city’s “master plan” for using the 1-percent sales and use tax if voters make it permanent Nov. 9, Searcy needs $500,000 per year for economic development. Early voting in the special election begins Nov. 2 and will be held on weekdays through Nov. 8 at the White County Cooperative Extensive Service Office, 2400 Landing Road, from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The temporary tax passed in 2014 is set to expire in June 2022.
Osborne said from the eight-year tax, “the city invested $2.1 million for economic development, including $1.9 million in improvements to city property to construct Janet Drive. These improvements facilitated the addition of good-paying jobs in Searcy City Center, including Hobby Lobby, TJ Maxx and Orr Toyota of Searcy. Without such improvements, these job opportunities would not have been available for our citizens.”
He said the goal of $500,000 yearly for “economic development-new- and higher-paying job opportunities” was determined “after seeking input from citizens.”
“The Arkansas Economic Development Commission is a key resource for the city in determining strategies for this broad goal,” Osborne said. “After working with the community, City Council and educational leaders along with the AEDC, $500,000 was the recommended amount.”
When asked how economic development would be administered and would the city be hiring someone to oversee it or contracting it out, Osborne responded, “The city will work with AEDC to determine strategies for this goal.”
He was then asked if the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Searcy Regional Economic Development Corp. might have roles with the city in economic development and receive city funds as a result of those roles. Osborne responded, “The city plans to work closely with the AEDC, and it is possible that one or both entities could be included in the process.”
If the chamber and the SREDC are already involved in economic development, Osborne was asked why the city should take over that or enhance that. He said, “Both the chamber and SREDC operate with an eye toward economic development. But through feedback and guidance from the community, educational leaders and the AEDC, it has become clear that additional funding is needed to attract more good jobs to our community. Searcy is committed to joining the effort to improve opportunities for our citizens and our graduating youth.”
The plan lists five areas of economic development: “Investment in local students through career and technical programs working in partnership with local school districts and education providers; pursuit of economic development grant opportunities and partnerships with Arkansas Economic Development Commission; purchase and preparation of shovel-ready sites to attract industry and manufacturing jobs to Searcy; [and] development and sales, marketing and promotional materials.”
Osborne was asked to explain each of those areas.
Concerning career and technical education programs, Osborne said, “the needs and investment opportunities will vary based on supply and demand, but the city is committed to working with local industry, local school districts, local higher education providers and the state of Arkansas for input and guidance.”
“Examples include computer programmer, CAD/CAM [computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturer] drafter, commercial truck driver, automation and robotics technician, heavy equipment operator, lineman, tool and die maker, machinist, plumber, electrician, HVACR [heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and refrigeration] technician, diesel technician, CNC [computer numerical control] operator, construction, welder and fiber optics technician.”
Concerning grant writing, he said, it “is an important role within a community. Every city should be focused on seeking, applying for and obtaining grant funds to better their towns and invest in its citizens. Here in the U.S., we are blessed to have so many opportunities to better ourselves and our communities through both federal and state grants. Searcy is committed to improving our pursuit of such grants, and the 1-cent revenues will be a huge help in this endeavor.”
“If the 1-cent renewal is successful, the city plans to have a dedicated person in this role similar to many cities across Arkansas. This may be an existing employee that takes on a new role or a new team member,” Osborne said. “The city is interested in pursuing all grant opportunities that add value to our community and its citizens.
“It is likely that some of those opportunities will require the city to match 10, 20 or 50 percent, but hopefully we can identify and receive our fair share of grants where the city will be fully reimbursed. One recent example is the FAA and ADA grants to the Searcy airport which require the city to match funding (typically 10-20 percent) or complete in-kind work.”
Osborne also asked if there were any shovel-ready sites fthat are ready for purchase that the city might be interested in and is there preparation that might have to be done to get these sites ready. Also, are any businesses interested in coming to Searcy if sites would be ready for them and would any incentives be available for them.
“Creating a shovel-ready site is among the priorities for the economic development funds,” he said. “It is an immediate need for job-creating companies who are evaluating the area as a possible site for their businesses. Ultimately, the goal is to create more good job opportunities for the citizens and graduating youth of Searcy.”
Regarding materials relating to marketing, he was asked who would be developing them for Searcy and what kinds of marketing the city wanted to do.
“The city, SREDC and AEDC together will explore the needs related to marketing or other economic development strategies,” Osborne said. “It is a goal to be more proactive in marketing the city and county rather than being reactionary to businesses seeking to locate here.”
According to the city’s master plan, it also has $250,000 annually going to reserve fund needs, which Osborne said is similar to the Reserve and Opportunity Fund for the eight-year plan.
“The city’s plan regarding the reserve funding is rooted in an effort to ensure Searcy operates conservatively with approximately 90 days unrestricted cash on hand at all times,” he said. “Historically, Searcy has struggled to maintain sufficient balances due to lack of adequate funding. This makes the city vulnerable to financial difficulties and hinders our ability to apply for state and federal grants.”
The plan lists a goal of building up $5,936,036 (90 days cash on hand) and Osborne said once the city reaches that amount, it “plans to use those funds on infrastructure needs,” which are listed as pay as you go in the plan.
It would take nearly 24 years to reach that goal based on $250,000 a year, but “it will be an ongoing process where the funds are planned to be used for a rainy-day fund and grant matching opportunities,” he said.