Independence County, Arkansas
Banking on a robust future
Business View Magazine interviews representative of Independence County, Arkansas for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
Nestled amid the gorgeous scenery of northeastern Arkansas is Independence County, one of the state’s most historic communities. Officially formed from Lawrence County on October 20, 1820, it was named in honor of the Declaration of Independence. The municipality proudly celebrates its legacy while simultaneously preparing for its future. Its largest town of Batesville is also the county seat and travellers come from far and wide to have fun at places like the Batesville Motor Speedway and Blanchard Springs Caverns. Whether it’s history, outdoor adventure, or shopping, Independence County offers everyone a uniquely memorable experience.
“We are singularly the only ‘Independence County’ in the United States, so, you must believe this is the finest place in all of America to live,” declares County Judge Robert Griffin. “There are many reasons why, but the main one I know is that our area’s successes ride heavily upon the shoulders of our homegrown lending institutions, Citizens Bank and First Community Bank.” Both banks are headquartered in Batesville and are locally owned, operated, and focus on the needs of the community.
Adam Mitchell, CEO of Citizens Bank, echoes Griffin, saying, “We are one of the few counties in the nation with two banks exceeding $1 billion in assets. Our work goes right back into serving our area. That’s the heart of being a community banker – making sure you’re serving the local needs. Independence County has economic drivers that other areas don’t, so it provides a nice insulation.” The county’s trust in its banks combined with a solid economy was especially valuable during the pandemic. Mitchell reports that COVID was a challenge because there were no guidelines, so it was important to rely on the power of leadership and community.
Both financial institutions got “heavily involved” with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), established in 2020 by the U.S. federal government to help businesses pay employees during lockdown. Citizens Bank and First Community Bank covered about 95 percent of customers by working around the clock. “We were one of the first banks to use it,” says Mitchell. “We quickly formed a team and got engaged. This is the role of a community bank – making sure you’re helping out your local area and saving those jobs. That was what helped Batesville.”
Griffin completely agrees, noting how these banks always step up every time. “The result is our current unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, which is considered full employment. The state is 4.4 percent, but the national rate is 6.0 percent. This shows the resiliency of Arkansas, and our county, to keep people employed, working, and productive. The vibrancy of this community and economy is absolutely astounding.” A positive side effect is that in 2020, the county collected more sales tax than ever before, even pre-pandemic. In 2021, the sales tax is up 11 percent.
Dale Cole, CEO of First Community Bank, describes Independence County as an ideal place to raise a family. He shares, “I have lived in this community for 33 years, and it has great school systems; the Batesville School District and the Southside School District. We’re also blessed to have two colleges. Lyon College, a private Presbyterian liberal arts college with approximately 600 students. Also, the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB) with around 1,700 students.” In the last couple years, the Batesville high school implemented a solar panel project, which inspired the community to become more engaged with the solar industry, even enrolling for solar rates with the Entergy Independence Plant.
All the schools work together to assist in developing the future workforce. For example, the county initiated a partnership between Southside High School and UACCB to offer Concurrent Credit Courses. A junior or senior high school student can take these courses through UACCB. Upon graduation, they can also have a two-year college degree. In addition, Southside High School has recently adopted a federal program where students can graduate with a pilot’s license. And within the last 18 months, UACCB even opened a Workforce Training Center, where students can be educated in specific trades like welding.
“If you don’t have a good school system, it’s hard to do anything else and grow,” admits Mitchell. “I’ve noticed the backbone of a vibrant community and economy is a good school system. Our school districts are foreword thinking, leading to our thriving industries.” Cole emphasizes, “That’s why there’s so many entrepreneurs in the area. We have good solid businesses that are constantly growing. We’ve got progressive people wanting to do business and our solid banks can provide capital.”
Independence County has a diverse range of industries, which not only strengthen the economy but also provide local jobs. Some of the largest industrial companies are Peco Foods, Inc. with 1,211 employees, Ozark Mountain Poultry with 1,000 employees, Bad Boy Mowers with 840 employees, and Future Fuel Chemical Company with 465 employees, and Intimidator has 431 employees. Non-manufacturing companies include White River Health System (WRHS) with 1,686 employees, White River Area Agency on Aging, Inc. with 641 employees, and the Batesville School District with 511 employees. Independence County’s economy is so robust that in 2019 the county deposits were $987,741,000, but in only 12 short months that number grew to $1,141,767,000.
“Really, truly, you have great community partnerships here, across many spectrums,” states Griffin. “Our community service program is short of workers for the recycling program. So, I reached out to my Recycling Manager and told him to contact the Batesville School District about the Jobs for Arkansas Graduates (JAG) program to potentially hire some students for the summer. We all work together on a daily or even hourly basis.”
A unique program that hopefully will launch soon plans to use the former White River Juvenile Detention Facility. The State Cabinet Secretary Graves along with the Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) intends to expand the parolees and probationers Supervision Sanction Program. The goal is to turn the building into a short-term release facility, helping those individuals get a head start on a productive life. These types of partnerships are integral in helping create a lifestyle valued by residents. Currently, the county is also restoring historic bridges in the area, as well as working on walking and biking trails around the Poke Bayou. “These are the things that are important to people here,” Griffin maintains, “it’s not just a lifestyle, it’s quality of life.”
That’s also why the county has identified the need for more affordable housing – yet another example of something the municipality works on collaboratively. Once again, the community banks are big supporters. Cole acknowledges, “First Community Bank does a lot of mortgage lending. This year, we’ll do about 220 million home loans through our company. We need lower to moderate housing, all types of housing. A lot of people are moving here from California and Texas and many pay cash for their homes because money talks and they can close within a week.”
In 2018 and 2019, the municipality typically had 350 houses on the market, compared to the 100 now. The houses sell fast, sometimes within an hour. A large part of the county has also been set-up with fiber internet, which helps. “I made a deal with Ritter Communications a while ago regarding VoIP phones,” reports Griffin. “They had to run fiber across almost all of Batesville to reach every building. Others then started piggy backing off that. AT&T is currently laying fiber in Southside area. We are seeing a tremendous amount of fiber going down.” Having reliable home internet throughout the community was essential during the pandemic. It was one less challenge the county had to manage. Judge Griffin adds, “We are in a constant state of movement here, Ritter is intending to also reach some groups of households in underserved areas with fiber and provide media services in addition to the high speed broadband and telecommunications. Our progress is one of perpetual motion.”
As for the banks, both institutions closed their lobbies to protect both employees and customers from COVID. “When things started to improve, we opened them, but then had to close again,” says Cole. “We had to be flexible, and most transactions were through the internet and our drive-through facility.” Now the county is coming up with ideas of how flexibility can be better incorporated into future planning.
“From our perspective, we recognized this lack, so I purchased a defunct Bank of America mobile facility,” Griffin recalls. “The pandemic drove home the need for drive-through services for tax assessment and tax collection. We didn’t see the need here to use any draconian efforts to close our economy. Everything was done very tactfully, very targeted. We allowed access into the Independence County Courthouse. My office has been open the entire time but monitored. We’re a solution-oriented county; not a reactionary one. We solve problems as we go without trying to make it worse, and that has worked well for us.”
AT A GLANCE
Independence County, Arkansas
What: A thriving, family-friendly community; population 37,000
Where: Northeastern Arkansas
First Community Bank – firstcommunity.net
First Community Bank, which is locally owned and managed, opened August 4, 1997, in Batesville, Arkansas, and currently operates 27 full-service branches in Arkansas and Missouri. First Community employs more than 485 professional bankers and reports assets of $1.9 billion as of June 30, 2021.