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City council to consider proposed economic development contract

By Tia Lyons
This article was published December 13, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

The El Dorado Works Board agreed Tuesday to a proposed, 2018 contract for services between the city and the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber officials discussed the scope of economic development services they have provided for the city this year.

The proposed contract for services in the amount of $45,000 will be presented to the El Dorado City Council on Dec. 19 for final approval. If OK’d by the council, the contract will be paid in quarterly installments of $11,250.

Mayor Frank Hash and Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Dumas said the terms of the proposal were modeled after a contract for services between the city of Little Rock and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“Some aldermen thought there should be more details, more specifics,” Hash said.

Dumas said the Little Rock contract was tailored to fit El Dorado and to spell out the scope of services the chamber will provide. Among the services are:

• Providing planning, marketing and strategic advice and counsel to the city regarding job recruitment, development, retention and expansion.

• Developing secure tools for the purpose of economic development prospects, such as maps, charts, photos, brochures, reports and other matters, as are necessary and required to adequately promote new and expanding industry within the city.

• Developing a business retention and expansion program.

The proposal also specifies that the city has no financial interest in the chamber.

Additionally, the chamber is prohibited from using the city’s name or credit in purchasing equipment and supplies.

Dumas noted that the city previously contributed $30,000 for its annual contract for services with the chamber, and under Hash’s leadership, the amount was increased to $45,000 for 2017 after Hash steered the chamber toward the EWB as the city’s funding source.

“It’s been a good year as far as economic development. We’ve had many prospects come to us from the (Arkansas Economic Development Commission),” Dumas said.

One manufacturing prospect who looked at four sites in which to expand in Arkansas passed on El Dorado because the area was too small, Dumas said.

“They didn’t feel like we had the workforce,” Dumas said, adding that he felt the decision was based more on the location of the industry’s primary facilities.

“They’re on the outskirts of Chicago, so I feel like they wanted to be near the big city,” Dumas said.

Brandon Barnette, economic development project manager for the chamber, said previous support from the city helped in the development of the business park on Champagnolle.

The city previously approved funding from its 1-cent economic development tax for the El Dorado Water Utilities to install water and sewer infrastructure.

Barnette said Union County extended Commerce Drive in the park. He said two lots have been sold to existing local businesses who are looking to expand, and the sale of two other lots are pending. Barnette said the expansions will mean more jobs.

Qualified workforce

A lengthy discussion also ensued regarding difficulties that local industries are experiencing in finding qualified workers to fill available positions and what the chamber is doing to address the issue.

As former El Dorado mayor and Union County judge, Dumas said his longtime focus has been helping to bring jobs to the area.

“There are jobs in El Dorado. The problem is there are no workers,” Dumas said.

He said the chamber is working with local industries, the five school districts in Union County and South Arkansas Community College to help remedy the situation.

Local industries have reported challenges in finding qualified workers to take such high-paying jobs in welding, pipefitting, machinery, plumbing and as an electrician.

He said representatives from the county’s school districts and SouthArk have been meeting with local industry representatives and touring industry facilities to figure how best to tackle the problem.

Dumas said an employee at a local industry graduated from El Dorado High School and went to college with the El Dorado Promise scholarship.

“He found out college was not for him, and he got a job driving trucks. That was hard on his family, so he left that job and found one at a small manufacturer,” Dumas said.

He said the employee started out with an hourly wage of $16 and is now making $23 an hour after a year and a half on the job.

“That’s good money for El Dorado,” Dumas said. “We’re not attracting large industries, but we’ve got to build our workforce.”

Dumas and Barnette said industry leaders say the problems lie primarily with candidates’ soft skills - showing up on time each day and passing a drug test.

Hash noted that the city has used its economic development sales tax to purchase a hands-on training unit, at the behest of local industry leaders, for SouthArk’s process technology program.

The tax has also been used to support SouthArk’s new Advanced Manufacturing Training Center that is under construction the college’s East Campus.

“How do you approach soft skills ... How do you get folks to show up on time and stay off drugs. How do you compete with getting a government check for not working?” Hash asked.

Bishop George Calloway, EWB member and pastor of St. James Baptist Church, co-signed the mayor’s assessment, saying that he has seen the problem’s effect in the black community in El Dorado.

Calloway said he has assisted young people in securing job interviews, and while many have successfully met most job qualifications, they have been turned down for not passing a drug screening.

Callloway noted that SouthArk has been visiting local churches and exposing youth members to manual labor jobs and educating them on the salaries that can be earned from such jobs.

EWB member Greg Downum said the board is willing to help in any way it can.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.

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