Leader Blues

Friday, January 09, 2009

TOP STORY > >Downturn here could be worse

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The housing and economic woes that have stunned the nation are working their way down into Arkansas and central Arkansas, but thus far the local impact hasn’t been as severe.

“We’ve seen a pretty big slowdown in the northeast (part of the state), but central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas are declining economically more slowly than the state or nation as a whole,” according to Jonathan Lupton, who researched and wrote “Metrotrends Economic Review and Outlook 2008,” an annual economic analysis by Metroplan, central Arkansas’ metropolitan planning organization.

Central Arkansas actually increased jobs at a rate of 1.5 percent, just higher than northwest Arkansas.

New single-family house starts are down nationally and throughout the state, but locally construc tion has not fallen as steeply as elsewhere.

“Central Arkansas single-family housing construction accelerated its decline during the first half of 2008,” according to the report, “yielding the slowest growth in new single-family units since 1997.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

In 2007, the most recent year for which complete data are available, the most affordable new houses in central Arkansas were in Jacksonville and Cabot, with the average Jacksonville permit for a $100,000 home, only about one-third the cost of a $272,500 home in Maumelle.

The Cabot average is $104,747.

Comparing the number of single-family and multifamily housing permits for the first six months of each of the last four years, about 1,500 permits were issued in central Arkansas in 2008, compared to about 2,000 in 2007, about 1,700 in 2006 and an eight-year high of about 2,700 in 2004.

New starts of single-family housing in Sherwood declined from 123 in the first half to 2007 to 91 in the first half of 2008, with no multi-family starts in the first half of either year.

In Jacksonville, the number of new starts in the first six months of 2008 tumbled to 35 from 85 for the same period last year, but new multi-family units increased from 16 to 25.

The number of new starts through June 2008 in Cabot was 62, almost exactly half the number for the same period in 2007, with no multi-family units in either period.

The total single family housing starts in the first six month was 929, about half the 1,895 starts in the first six months of 2005. The number of new starts in the area dropped about 350 since last year.

TWO NEW BUSINESSES

Of 29 new or expanded businesses in central Arkansas during 2007, only eight were new, including AGL Laser Control Systems at Little Rock and England Oil Field Services at England.

Using economic forecast information from UALR, the report credits rising energy exports (Fayetteville Shale gas and windmills) and local economic diversity with helping to partially insulate central Arkansas from much of the global economic storm.

Central Arkansas has experienced prosperity and above-average growth since 2000, in stark contrast to the anemic growth in the years previous. But the drop-off in the housing markets suggests that local income and employment won’t be immune to current conditions.

The national unemployment rate in August was 6.1 percent, but unemployment for the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway statistical area was only 4 percent.

Between 2001 and 2007, the per capita income growth rate in the U.S. was 9.9 percent, while in northwest Arkansas growth was 12.8 percent and central Arkansas was 17 percent.

CONWAY GROWTH

Between 2000 and 2008, Conway grew 12.1 percent in area, but 33.6 percent in population.

Lupton credits Conway’s progressive approach to development as critical to the area’s growth.

Those policies included the widening of Dave Ward Boulevard as a median-divided boulevard unsuitable for the kind of willy-nilly sprawl anchored by fast food restaurants and muffler shops.

Lupton said it would prove its worth in long-term growth.

Conway also implemented two traffic circles, which eliminate stoplights and increase traffic capacity.

Finally, the town has encouraged the growth of Hendrix Village, a walkable community next to Hendrix College.

A working model for “new urbanism,” the village will integrate work places, restaurants, housing and shops together.