For the second month in a row, Pine Bluff tops the state’s unemployment list, but there is some hope on the horizon for better days to come.
According to the most current statistics available from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services — December 2018 — the city’s unemployment rate was at 6.2 percent, up from 5.8 percent in November.
DWS numbers show that Pine Bluff’s labor force totaled 16,417 workers, with 15,395 of those having jobs in December 2018. The state’s second-highest unemployment rate for December 2018 was in El Dorado at 5.7 percent.
Bentonville and Springdale in northwest Arkansas tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.5 percent.
Jefferson County’s unemployment rate for December 2018 was 5.6 percent.
Caleb McMahon, director of economic development at the Jefferson County Alliance and Chamber, said Pine Bluff’s high unemployment rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“One thing is that we look at the number since 2011 when we first introduced the economic inventive tax,” he told The Commercial after the November jobs numbers were released last month.
“Unemployment was 11 percent then. It has been steadily going down. This is a good trend, but that being said, compared to other locations, we do have a higher unemployment rate. That higher rate actually makes us more attractive to industry because of our available workforce. Workforce is a key thing that industry looks for. There is a silver lining that helps us attract more business. It’s our job to get (the unemployment rate) as low as possible. We started out way behind everyone else.”
McMahon pointed to the coming Saracen Casino Resort, which is expected to bring more than 1,000 jobs to the area, as one bright spot in the city’s economic future.
For unemployed Pine Bluff residents like Luther Scroggins, the casino jobs are welcome news.
“I have been unemployed for six months, and I just can’t find a job that suits me,” Scroggins said. “I have decided I want to work at the casino. I hear they are going to be good-paying jobs.”
Chief John Berrey with the Quapaw Tribe is chairman of Downstream Development Authority, which has been selected by leaders in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County to operate the casino here. Voters approved a casino measure in the 2018 election.
Berrey said there is a potential for casino employees to make a great salary.
“Some of our employees (at the Oklahoma casino) make more than $100,000 a year, and some of them are single mothers,” Berrey said. “We’ve been operating in Oklahoma for 10 years, and 65 percent of the employees who started with us are still with us. We have the best benefits package of any company in the community.”
Construction on the casino is expected to begin in the coming weeks, with a tentative opening date set for February 2020.