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Opportunity knocks.

St. Francis County on Upswing With Three New Industries

WITH THREE MAJOR new industries preparing to move in, these are heady times in St. Francis County.

Slowly fading are the memories of the 1980s, a decade in which Forrest City, the county seat, lost more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs, assuring the county a consistent spot atop the state unemployment chart.

Then there was the social and political turmoil that plagued the town, beginning in 1984 when two masked men broke into the home of Wayne Dumond, who was awaiting trial on a rape charge, and castrated him. Dumond's testicles later turned up in a jar on the desk of County Sheriff Coolidge Conlee, who himself ended up in prison on extortion and racketeering charges. Conlee died in April 1990.

In between those publicity-generating incidents surfaced frequent media accounts highlighting racial tension in the county.

It all added up to a public relations nightmare.

But, like a phoenix, Forrest City is rising from the ashes. Its new incarnation may make St. Francis County the state's next economic success story.

"To be able to recruit major facilities like we've done in light of all that, I think, just proves the stamina and the character of the community because some of those are tough images to overcome," says Forrest City Mayor Danny Ferguson.

The comeback began more than three years ago when an aide to then-Gov. Bill Clinton called Ferguson and Perry Webb, executive director of the Forrest City Chamber of Commerce, to see if the city was interested in construction of a federal prison.

At the time, the town's manufacturing sector was stagnant. A 1985 strike at Sanyo Manufacturing Corp. underscored conflicts between management and organized labor in Forrest City, casting a pall over any attempts to recruit new industry.

Ferguson and Webb saw the prison as a way to diversify Forrest City's economy with a business that would be recession-proof, but they had to have support.

"You don't really know what the response of the community's going to be when you propose a prison, so we held a public hearing," Ferguson says. "Out of 300 people, we had two hands go up against it, and so at that point it just gave us a direction to go."

The support for the project was a sign of something else.

"That was such a point of unity for us that had not been seen in Forrest City in so long," says Weston Lewey, associate publisher of Forrest City's newspaper, The Daily Times-Herald and a former chamber president.

Webb says Clinton "hand-carried the concept of putting in federal prisons" through the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission. U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers and former U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander joined in the political persuasion. In 1991, Forrest City found out it had been selected for the prison, which is expected eventually to employ as many as 1,000 people and funnel $12.9 million annually into the local economy.

Although the state's politicians initiated the prison idea, Forrest City residents and business leaders played a major role in keeping the idea alive. They flooded the Bureau of Prisons with encouraging letters, and they went to Washington to lobby key people.

Even after Forrest City had been chosen, the encouragement campaign continued. One farmer, who operates a peach orchard next to the intended prison site, wrote the bureau to welcome the prison to his neighborhood.

Ferguson says it was this kind of down-home sincerity that paid off for Forrest City in getting the prison and, more recently, in recruiting Dixie Foods Co., a subsidiary of Doskocil Cos. of Hutchinson, Kan., to bring in a meat-processing plant that will open by November and employ about 185.

The mayor and Webb led the effort to woo the Doskocil representatives, hosting a gourmet lunch at a private residence upon their arrival, sending them off with baskets of hand-picked peaches and generally bending over backward.

"I think we really put a good recruiting effort on them," Ferguson says. "With the state's highest unemployment rate over here, we're probably a little hungrier than some other communities in the state that are doing a little better than we are."

In between news of the prison and Dixie Foods' announcement, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced plans to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Forrest City that will employ about 360.

Forrest City now has to contend with growing pains, some of which will be costly. But, as Webb says, these are "good problems."

The city plans a $3 million bond issue to finance water and sewage system expansions needed to accommodate both the prison and Dixie Foods. That's in addition to more than $300,000 the city already has invested in both projects to bring them to fruition.

Despite Forrest City's hard times and a relatively modest annual operating budget of $4 million, the city has been able to "sock away some money" while maintaining the level of city services, Ferguson says. This gave the city some leverage in securing its new industries.

Webb says Forrest City assessed its situation around 1990, and that led to changes. For example, before any further industrial recruiting took place, an effort was made to strengthen existing relations with businesses such as Sanyo.

In 1990, a delegation from Forrest City went to Japan to thank the company for its commitment to the town. Today, Webb and Ferguson say relations with the company are stronger than ever, and Sanyo is credited with helping persuade Doskocil that Forrest City is a good place for industry.

Perry says Forrest City's leadership also underwent an attitude change on its way back up.

"A lot of Delta communities have the attitude when they go to Little Rock, 'Well, what have y'all done for us today?' In my opinion, the difference is Forrest City doesn't have that attitude any longer. Now it's, 'What are we going to do for ourselves today and how can you help us attain that?"

Whatever the secret of Forrest City's new direction, people in the community agree there's a new spirit in the air.

Lewey says people are talking about opportunities. People seem more willing to take risks by investing in real estate and expanding businesses.

"For a while you just didn't hear that kind of talk around here," she says.

"It's given people some semblance of hope," says Kersh Hall, managing editor of The Daily Times-Herald. "Our economy has been stagnant so long."

Last week at St. Francis County's unemployment office, that hope could be seen in the faces of some 700 residents who streamed in to fill out a preliminary application for a job at Dixie Foods.

Back in 1989, when almost one out of four county residents was unemployed, the mayor was quoted as saying the county was looking for "little sparks in a dark tunnel."

Now, St. Francis County can look forward to a floodlight instead.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:economic revival of St. Francis County, Arkansas
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 19, 1993
Previous Article:All aboard Southwest.
Next Article:Prison prognosis.

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