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Economic recovery on the horizon as COVID wanes

by Tia Lyons | March 27, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
Local unemployment levels are lower than they were shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, but still trail pre-COVID levels. (Courtesy of the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce)

Economically speaking, El Dorado hung tough throughout 2021 as the city continued to recover from the effects of the coronavirus (COVID) pandemic.

Officials with the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce acknowledged ebbs and flows in the city's economy last year, saying that the latter outweighed the former and the outlook for 2022 looks even brighter.

Bill Luther, chamber president and CEO, and Kaitlyn Rigdon, economic development project manager for the chamber, recently took a look back at 2021 and offered some perspective and provided information on how economic development opportunities are shaping up for the city this year.

A nationwide labor shortage that was sparked by COVID-19 and the oft-reported Great Resignation over the past two years did not bypass local businesses, they said.

"One of the key factors we saw that affected local businesses by COVID-19 this past year was the ability to have enough employees hired for each business to run at full capacity," Rigdon wrote in an email.

Many elected officials, economists, business/industry owners, chambers of commerce and hiring managers across the country primarily attributed the labor shortage to relief benefits that were granted to millions of Americans as part of federal unemployment assistance packages.

For instance, the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act of 2020, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, supplemented unemployment benefits with $300 per week and the benefits were extended to 2021.

American workers provided myriad of reasons for not returning to the job -- fear of/high-risk for catching the virus, inadequate and unaffordable child-care options, low wages, lack of health care and other benefits and a general shift in attitudes toward the values that people look for in a job.

Many labor experts maintained that federal unemployment benefits kept people from going back to work and many others agreed.

By mid-year 2021, states began opting out of the federal unemployment benefits program and Arkansas was among the first to do so.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson directed the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services to provide job assistance as part of an effort to encourage people to return to work.

The state pulled out of the federal program last June.

Rigdon shared that El Dorado and Union County mirrored state and national employment trends.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that businesses added 3.8 million jobs in 2021 -- a number that was described as "unprecedented."

However, more than 2.2 million Americans had left the workforce since January 2020.

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Federal Reserve Economic Data that was provided by the chamber, the employment rate in Union County increased after the state cut federal unemployment benefits in 2021, with unemployment numbers dropping from 7.5% last June to 3.9% in December.

As COVID began to spread in El Dorado and Union County in early 2020, the chamber leapt into action by regularly checking in on its members and monitoring changes -- including modifications in operating hours, services and temporary or permanent closings.

At the start of 2020, 494 chamber-member businesses were open with full service.

Two months later, 272 members' businesses were open at full capacity, with 180 businesses having modified services.

The chamber reported that as of January this year, 481 members are operating at full service and 36 members are still using modified services -- representing a total of 517 businesses, an increase of 23 businesses from pre-COVID times.

Rigdon said the labor shortage is affecting the 36 businesses that are unable to operate at full capacity.

"We are seeing this especially within the fast-food industry," she said, adding that five chamber member-businesses have permanently closed since January 2020 due to the pandemic.

Several fast-food restaurants around town have posted "Now Hiring" signs over the past 18 months..

"Employed persons" statistics have been on the uptick in Union County since the start of 2021, climbing to 14,483, as of last December, from a low of 13,442 in April 2020.

The 14,483 is lower than pre-pandemic numbers of 14,889.

Chamber officials noted that a drop in the city's population -- which went from 18,884 in 2010 to 17,756, according to the 2020 U.S. Census count -- translated into a reduction of 600 people from the county's workforce between January 2020 to December 2021.

"So, while the numbers show that the total, employed population is lower than before the pandemic, we see that there are now less people in Union County making up the workforce population," Rigdon said.

Business activity

Business openings and expansions brought dozens of new jobs to the city last year, the chamber said.

Among the 2021 business openings were Excalibur Family Entertainment Center, which added 25 permanent employees, MuleKick@ MAD, Three Birds Brewing Company, Gabe's Cave and Mystic Grill at Mystic Creek Golf Club.

The chamber held 26 ribbon-cuttings in 2021 and have hosted six so far this year.

A ribbon-cutting was held last December for CARTI Cancer Center, which moved into and remodeled the former Office Depot building at 1601 N. West Ave.

The space comes with more than 25,000 square feet.

Continental Carbonic Product, Inc., a new dry-ice manufacturing facility, which is adjacent to El Dorado Chemical Company, has filled 50 of 60 available jobs, the chamber reported.

MuleKick opened in the space that formerly housed the Griffin Restaurant in the MAD entertainment complex, expanding its business to two locations -- the other is in Magnolia.

Three Birds settled into the spot that was vacated when Quiznos closed.

Pupp's BBQ filled a void that was left downtown when COVID-19 forced LaBella's Gourmet Gifts and Delicatessen to close in 2020.

The Main Street El Dorado board of directors recently reported that Sweet Treats Bake Shop quietly closed its doors for good in early March.

Construction is underway for a new coffee shop and a new health care facility on Timberlane and West Hillsboro, respectively.

Chamber officials noted upcoming projects -- including business expansions, two of which are existing manufacturers who are expected to create a total of 300 jobs, 150 apiece, in Union County within the next year --, saying they cannot yet publicly discuss the projects.

"One of the companies that is expanding is doing so to fulfill the demands of their product, which is great news," Rigdon said, adding that such statistics apply only to chamber members.

Chamber officials also cited the need for affordable housing -- houses that are constructed for $150,000-$200,000 -- in El Dorado.

Filling that need, among other needs in the city, could help attract new businesses, they said.

The topic of affordable housing has been recommended and addressed in public discussions economic development and urban planning/design studies that have been completed for the city over the past 20 years.

A new subdivision is going up behind Stars Cinema this year.

The chamber is working with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on 15 active economic development projects that include the forest products, chemical, food and beverage, undisclosed and existing industries.

The chamber is also actively pursuing 13 projects in commercial and housing development, new restaurants, forest products and a local business expansion.

Print Headline: Economic recovery on the horizon as COVID wanes


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