Posted on October 3, 2012
Originally published in the El Dorado News-Times on October 4, 2012.
By: Tia Lyons
Gov. Mike Beebe got informative updates Wednesday on the economic outlook of El Dorado and Union County, and apparently, he liked what he heard.
Beebe met with the local business and industry leaders and members of various boards and commissions in a closed meeting that lasted about an hour at the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.
The stop was part of an continuing effort by the governor to keep his finger on the pulse of economic development activity throughout the state.
Following the meeting, Beebe enthusiastically told the News-Times that it is uplifting to see a community, guided by "great leadership,? pull together and maximize its resources to meet challenges and try and reverse its economic fortunes.
Beebe heard reports from the chamber, the El Dorado Economic Development Board, the El Dorado Advertising and Promotion Commission, El Dorado Festivals and Events Inc. and local industries.
Beebe said he was impressed with the "trajectory and the direction? in which El Dorado and Union County are headed.
The governor said it was encouraging to hear that unemployment for Union County has dropped to 8.2 percent, down four points from a high of more than 12 percent.
Henry Florsheim, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said the latest unemployment numbers are the lowest they?ve been since December 2008.
"Employment is slowly climbing up. We?re not content, but we?re encouraged by the trends,? Florsheim said.
Of the many "unique? positives in El Dorado, Beebe noted the city?s award-winning, historic downtown, for which he has long been a champion.
"I always say you?ve got the best downtown in the state,? Beebe said.
He said the city?s thriving centerpiece is a vital part of tourism as an economic engine to drive the city, particularly as El Dorado works to rebrand itself as the "The Festival City.?
The area has plenty of amenities to attract visitors from all over South Arkansas and North Louisiana, Beebe said.
He also pointed to expansions of local industries, touting "the huge investments? they are making in the community.
Florsheim said Beebe took a tour of Lion Oil prior to visiting the chamber, and during the meeting at the chamber, the governor listened intently to a report given by Greg Withrow, general manager of El Dorado Chemical, about the company?s future plans.
Withrow has said planned expansions of El Dorado Chemical could mean an additional 75 to 100 jobs in the near future.
Said Beebe, "You?ve got El Dorado Chemical, after the (May 15 plant explosion and) fire, coming back bigger and better and stronger. A lot of plants, after experiencing something like that, would just close down.?
In addition to El Dorado Chemical, most of the area?s other major employers, including Lion Oil, Great Lakes Solutions, Amercable, and Clean Harbors, are expanding, Florsheim said.
Florsheim said Beebe had been expected to make a stop in El Dorado last month, but his trip was stalled by Hurricane Isaac.
And then the chamber got a call from Beebe?s office last week, asking if the governor could speak with the local business community during a visit here for another event on Wednesday, Florsheim said.
He said Beebe also heard updates on exploration of the Smackover Brown Dense Formation and new businesses and industries that are opening in El Dorado, including Therma-Flite, Rand, a shampoo manufacturer that received support from the Union County Investment Angels, Buffet Palace in the former Ryan?s location, and Four Brothers Seafood and Southern Eatery in the former El Chico location.
Also, Florsheim said there was some discussion about the proposal for a temporary, half-cent sales tax for state highways and roads that will appear on the ballot on Nov. 6.
If passed, a portion of the $1.8 billion in revenue the tax is expected to generate would be used to complete the four-laning of U.S. 167 between El Dorado to Little Rock and start work on four-laning U.S. 82 across South Arkansas, he said.
"We?re trying to turn it into a real, functional showpiece as opposed to just turning it into another (West Avenue),? Florsheim said, adding that ideas are being considered for roundabouts, raised medians and wide sidewalks with grassy buffers to stimulate pedestrian traffic.
As for Beebe?s visit, Florsheim said he was as impressed with the governor?s interest in South Arkansas as Beebe seemed to be with the reports he received about the region.
"He asked us how he could help. He made it clear that he likes South Arkansas and that his economic development folks pay as much attention to existing industry as recruiting industry,? Florsheim said."