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Desert storm: businessman envisions eastern Arkansas region becoming industrial oasis.

WHEN STEVE THOMAS looks at a map of eastern Arkansas, he sees an economic desert.

He notices the double-digit unemployment in counties such as Prairie and St. Francis and the erosion of the region's agricultural-based economy, without new industry filling the vacuum.

He sees little towns like Cotton Plant in Woodruff County, where downtowns are boarded up and residents reflect on the past in terms of what their town "used to have."

Jonesboro is the primary exception, though the Blytheville area in Mississippi County is starting to benefit from a flourishing steel industry.

But Thomas says the region needs a lot more industry to stay alive.

Borrowing a phrase the Memphis Commercial Appeal used to describe Jonesboro, Thomas refers to the hub town as "an oasis in an economic desert."

"The economic desert continues to get worse, and Jonesboro continues to get better," he says.

Those "desert" towns -- places such as Trumann, Augusta, Harrisburg and Des Arc -- "basically don't have an industrial base," he says. "And there's still a perception of those rich farmers in eastern Arkansas, but that perception is wrong.

"Farming is a feast-or-famine economy. The farm income has not risen on a steady incline in the last 10-12 years."

Thomas says some counties surrounding Jonesboro could be classified as "semiarid" in that they have unemployment rates that shift as various plants reopen, add shifts or lay off employees. Still, most of the region remains far behind the most recent statewide unemployment rate of 5.8 percent.

In hopes of transforming more of eastern Arkansas into an oasis, Thomas is building support for a group called Eastern Arkansas Recovery, or EAR.

He envisions it as a political action group of sorts that would include community, business and political leaders from around the state who want to see eastern Arkansas lure more industries such as manufacturing and food processing.

Rich Resource of Labor

Thomas says the balance of economic and political clout outside central Arkansas has shifted heavily in favor of northwest Arkansas. A major focus of EAR would be to sway the wealthy entrepreneurial families of that region to consider eastern Arkansas when making expansion plans, especially the poultry dynasties.

"There's a rich resource of labor in eastern Arkansas, but it's basically unskilled labor," Thomas says. "Maybe in |the poultry companies'~ expansive modes, they could locate some processing plants in these areas that would employ 500-1,000 people. ... That would be a boon for those economies."

A native of tiny Tuckerman in Jackson County, a town with a population of about 2,000 and chronic unemployment, Thomas grew up in a farming family. But, like many children of farming families, he's taken a different career route.

He now lives in Searcy, where he is a businessman with Frostyaire for Frozen Foods Inc., a company owned by his family.

However, his concerns remain firmly embedded in eastern Arkansas. That's why he hopes EAR can become a force.

"The whole purpose is to bring awareness to this area over here that economically has fallen by the wayside, and unless emphasis is placed on this area ... these various little communities are going to just dissolve," he says.

Thomas already has managed to bend the ear of a couple of politicians.

Newport lawyer Sam Boyce and Tom McRae, former president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation Inc. -- lieutenant governor candidates -- have met with Thomas to discuss the region's woes. In fact, Boyce is running on a platform that stresses the need for industrial development in eastern Arkansas.

It is an idea in which Thomas hopes he can interest others. And fast.

"What we've got to do is act fast over here," Thomas says, pointing at a map of the state's eastern region. "We need to start seeing results in 5-10 years because if we don't, that definitely will be a desert over there. More so than an economic desert, it'll be a true desert."
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Title Annotation:Steve Thomas
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 17, 1993
Words:651
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