Crowning the top of Crowley’s Ridge, Jonesboro shines like a beacon in the Delta, drawing in more students, families, new businesses and manufacturers every year. Alone in eastern Arkansas, Jonesboro has experienced continued growth. While many of its neighbors wilt and fade, Jonesboro has succeeded through a combination of proactive leadership, strong service industries and simple serendipity.
St. Bernards: A Century of Community Care
The largest employer in Jonesboro’s largest industry, St. Bernards Healthcare began in 1900 as a six-room house clinic run by the Holy Angels Convent. Since then, the hospital has grown into a massive 1 million square-foot complex sprawling across multiple blocks in Jonesboro’s downtown. The most recent and largest addition was completed last December, a five-story, $103 million surgical and intensive-care tower.
“The new tower increased our capacity by 25 percent and serves as a new front door for our hospital,” said Chris Barber, president and CEO. The tower marks the penultimate phase of St. Bernards “New Start” initiative, which began in 2016 when it opened a new cancer center. It continued with renovations to the heart-care center and the construction of the aforementioned 245,000 square-foot tower, which has space for 20 surgical suites and an intensive-care unit with 46 beds. St. Bernards’ next step is continuing renovations throughout the existing medical center, which should be finished within the year.
While it has made needed investments in existing facilities, St. Bernards isn’t myopic. While the hospital doesn’t directly feel the pressures of rural healthcare providers, it has worked to protect and preserve hospitals and clinics surrounding Craighead County and also partners with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
“St. Bernards leases and operates clinics around northeast Arkansas. At the same time, we have management agreements and affiliations with other rural hospitals in our area,” said Barber.
Barber feels that St. Bernards should do everything possible to assist Jonesboro’s outlying communities by maintaining local medical services.
“The other hospitals we’re involved with were on the brink of closure. We stepped in because they were in distress, and we want to maintain quality care in those communities,” he said.. “St. Bernards’ partner hospitals are critical to their communities. Through group-purchasing and lending expertise with finances and regulatory compliance, we’ve helped those hospitals and their towns fortify their work and move forward.”
Barber also is excited about recent developments at Arkansas State University, specifically the university’s addition of a New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) satellite campus.
“NYIT provides us with the opportunity to host third- and fourth-year medical students on their rotations,” he said, noting there are currently 48 students performing rotations at St. Bernards. He sees promise in these students’ experiences at the hospital. “Based on 40 years of research in our market area, 70 to 75 percent of residents tend to stay within a 100-mile radius of where they did their training and residency,” he said.
This average compares favorably to findings presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which found that 55 percent of all physicians who completed their medical education in Arkansas currently practice within the state.
Despite this success, recent events have begun placing stress on St. Bernards. The hospital contains 438 beds. NEA Baptist, the other hospital in town, has around 300, both combining to serve a population nearing 80,000. In the event of a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19, there are concerns that the two hospitals would be completely swamped. “Well, we’ve been planning for this sort of pandemic for years. We’ve currently got more capacity than ever before,” said Barber, who explained that St. Bernards has been coordinating with other health care providers across Arkansas, pooling resources in order to successfully care for those who need acute care.
“The fact of the matter is, if thousands of people anywhere in Arkansas have extremely adverse reactions to coronavirus — infections that require ventilation or intubation — there are no facilities equipped to handle it,” he said. “We’re prepared to scale up as much as possible, and we believe our cross-state collaboration with UAMS and other health-care providers will help us handle the situation.”
Established as a response to an 1899 malaria outbreak, St. Bernards is experienced with handling disease outbreaks.
“We’ve been fortunate to see Jonesboro grow steadily over the decades, and we plan to match that growth as a regional hub for health-care services,” said Barber, on a lighter, more broad note. “Our city continues to create high-paying jobs and develop quality-of-life amenities that attract individuals to Jonesboro. Jonesboro Unlimited released a five-year strategic plan, meaning to create 2,500 new direct jobs in five years.”
In fact, Jonesboro Unlimited, the city’s economic development organization, exceeded that goal two years early. “They’re in the third year of that plan, and they’ve created 3,125 new jobs,” said Barber, who chaired the organization until last year. “During that time, we’ve also seen about $275 million in construction investments. I think that positive leadership has been incredibly important in driving our community forward.”
In addition to positive leadership, an unsung hero of Jonesboro’s progress is Jonesboro City Water and Light (CWL), the city’s resident utility company that currently offers some of the lowest utility rates in the country. Jonesboro CWL rose from fairly unique circumstances around the same time when St. Bernards was established, launched in 1906 when a group of citizens petitioned the Arkansas General Assembly to create a municipal improvement district.
“During that time, there were private electric and water utilities in Jonesboro, but our founders saw a need for a sanitary sewer system,” said Jake Rice III, president of Jonesboro CWL. “The city was unable to secure funds to create utilities, so these people got the Arkansas legislature to create an improvement district and acquired the existing private utilities.”
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Jonesboro CWL is not technically a municipal utility. “We’re a municipal improvement district that functions as a consolidated utility district,” explained Rice. “We’re owned by the citizens of Jonesboro. Since we don’t have to deliver a rate of return to shareholders, Jonesboro CWL is instead focused on providing reliable service for the most reasonable price possible.”
Rice isn’t exaggerating. Electricity rates in Jonesboro are 6.13 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), less than the Arkansas average rate of $0.0921/kWh and half the national average of $0.1319/kWh. Additionally, Jonesboro CWL’s water and sewer rates are one-third of the national average. “Our low rates save our Jonesboro customers roughly $60 million every year, money that can be invested back into the community. Our prices also do a big part in attracting new industries to the area,” said Rice.
Besides its nonprofit status, Jonesboro CWL manages to keep prices low through income tax exemptions and municipal bonds. CWL also generates excess power, which can then be sold wholesale, driving prices down further. “We also own our own power sources. We co-own the Independence and White Bluff coal plants with Entergy, and we contract in hydroelectric power from a Southwestern Power Administration dam,” said Rice. “Within Jonesboro, we built and own a 175-megawatt natural gas turbine. Owning those power sources is another method for us to keep costs down.”
Incidentally, both the Independence and White Bluff plants rank among the top 50 dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the United States, and Entergy committed to closing both within 10 years.
“We’re currently exploring a new base-load resource to replace those coal plants,” said Rice. “Right now, it looks like investing in a large combined cycle/high-efficiency natural gas plant would be the best replacement. Still, as solar and wind power generation becomes more affordable, we’ll also look to those renewables as a great addition to our power portfolio.
“We’re just going to keep our finger on the pulse, that way we can keep our commitment to providing great service at an incredible price.”
Another key element to Jonesboro’s success is an attentive administration, headed by Mayor Harold Perrin. While the city’s municipal government has enjoyed Jonesboro’s continued success, by no means is it sitting complacent. Like many rapidly-growing cities, Jonesboro currently faces the twin issues of urban sprawl and inner-city blight. Low property costs have biased developers toward building in the northeast corner of the city along the corridor toward Paragould, while ignoring large parts of Jonesboro’s historic downtown areas and industrial sites.
Taking a proactive approach, Jonesboro’s leadership began taking advantage of local, state and national programs to further promote downtown revitalization. A large part of this movement entails opportunity zones, part of the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. “Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson designated three areas in Jonesboro as ‘opportunity zones,’ said Mayor Perrin. “That’s out of about 85 statewide.”
Under the current tax plan, governors chose certain economically-distressed areas ripe for development and designated them as opportunity zones. Within these communities, individuals or corporations can create qualified opportunity funds (QOFs) that are eligible for preferential treatments on invested capital gains from outside transactions. Any business or development created within an opportunity zone can be organized as a QOF, and must be to receive tax incentives.
For example, let’s say you sold a three-acre lot to a real-estate developer. If you sold at a higher price than the property initially cost, the profits are considered capital gains. Normally, capital gains are subject to yearly taxes, but if you invest them into a QOF, those taxes are deferred until you either dispossess your interest in the QOF or in 2026, whichever comes first.
The incentive for investing capital gains into these opportunity zone developments is that if you maintain your QOF investments for five years, the tax owed on your initial investment is reduced by 10 percent. If you hang on for seven years, it goes down 15 percent.
If you stick around for 10 years, you receive an additional reward. While the capital gains you initially invested will still be taxed (although at 85 percent of what you originally owed), any subsequent capital gains you earn from selling your QOF investments or interest are permanently excluded from taxation.
“Jonesboro’s three opportunity zones are the downtown area, our eastern industrial park and the area surrounding Arkansas State University,” said Perrin, who suggested the three due to their need and potential for economic development. While the opportunity zone program is meant to alleviate urban blight by providing an economic shot in the arm for low-income communities, there are concerns that unscrupulous developers might build unaffordable housing and businesses for the tax benefits, pushing out the distressed area’s original denizens.
“I don’t see gentrification as a significant concern,” said Mike Downing, chief of staff for the city of Jonesboro. “In order to acquire the land, a developer has to first buy the property. Now that there’s a tax incentive for building in these opportunity zones, the properties within them have actually risen in value than they had prior.”
While there aren’t strong guidelines for what sort of developments should be built as QOFs, the city is encouraging the creation of more affordable housing. “The biggest QOF development we’re currently aware of is the University Lofts on Union Street,” said Downing.
Built by Jetton Contractors, University Lofts potentially are a paragon of opportunity zone investments. “They’re building 68 ‘micro-lofts,’ ranging from 366 to 550 square-feet,” said Lindsey Wingo, director of the Downtown Jonesboro Alliance (DJA). “The rent runs from $845 to $1,025 per month.” According to Dominic Esposito, University Lofts’ project analyst, the lofts are set to open early this summer. “While the spaces are geared toward ASU students, they are open to the general public,” he said.
Beyond that development, the DJA currently is focused on a variety of beautification projects. “We’ve headed an extensive downtown lighting project and have put up several murals in central Jonesboro,” said Wingo. “We’re also working with the city and ASU to bridge the gap between the university and downtown.”
Wingo refers to one of the largest civic projects in the city’s history: the Jonesboro Greenway Project, a plan to build a 26-mile walkable loop around Jonesboro called the Red Wolf Way. “Within the loop there are five branches that link different parts of Jonesboro to our downtown hub,” said Danny Kapales, Jonesboro’s Parks and Recreation director. An ambitious project, the city just completed the first link in the chain, connecting Craighead Forest Park to the rest of the city. “It’s a $45 million plan. If we had that amount in our pockets, it would take about 10 years to finish,” said Kapales. “As of today, we have $1 million. With that, our focus is building the 4.8 mile walking path from ASU to downtown.”
Two other keys to Jonesboro’s continued downtown revitalization are currently being facilitated by the city. First, three blocks connecting Downtown Jonesboro with Arkansas State are currently being used by TRG Recycling, but the city has convinced the group to move its operations elsewhere. “We were informed that they’d purchased the scrapyard operation in our industrial park, and they’re planning on being off their downtown site within a year or so,” Perrin said. After that, TRG would hire a firm to clean up the site. Once that’s finished, the city will consider purchasing the three acres for a greenspace as part of the overall walkability initiative. “We think that would be a significant quality of life improvement,” said Perrin. “It would also really pull us closer together with ASU.”
One of Jonesboro’s biggest assets is Arkansas State University, the state’s second-largest university. Kelly Damphousse, the school’s chancellor, sees ASU as the educational and cultural center of northeast Arkansas. “I think we’re integral to Jonesboro. We’re tied together extremely closely; the city and the university are codependent,” he said.
Recognizing that Jonesboro’s future depends on retaining ASU’s graduates, the university is currently working on strategies to promote connections with local employers. “When we invited community business leaders to help us build our strategic plan, we found that many of those in agriculture and manufacturing were looking for certain kinds of employees,” said Damphousse. “We’re now looking at changing what we’re doing academically to better align with our local needs.”
Other parts of ASU’s current strategic plan include attracting new students through emphasizing high-school performance over standardized tests. “We’ve done some analysis that shows a high-school GPA is a far better predictor of success at college than ACT or SAT scores,” saidDamphousse. ASU also is working on a holistic approach to encouraging student success across its system schools, as well as investing in research infrastructure at the main Jonesboro campus, which has become designated as a “Research-II university,” denoting high levels of research activity. “We’ve always had faculty performing research, but we always had a larger emphasis on teaching,” said Damphousse. “Luckily, we’ve not lost our faculty’s strong interest in undergraduate teaching. The two have married in an interesting way, allowing our undergraduate students to get research experience here that they might not find elsewhere.”
Part of that is the Create@State program, a year-long student research and creativity development program covering a variety of disciplines including business plans, oral presentations of research and community outreach plans and musical performances.
“Normally that program would be culminating this April, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak we’ve had to cancel the symposium, and we’re exploring options for virtual presentations,” said Damphousse. “Luckily, we already have a very sophisticated online presence. We’re the largest online degree provider in the state.”
Bumps in the Road
Despite the community leadership’s interest in expanding city programs and enhancing Jonesboro’s amenities, there has been a bit of pushback. “There’s a tug of war going on in Jonesboro between progressives and people who want the town to be the ‘Mayberry’ they imagine it was 40 years ago,” said Perrin.
Last November, those progressive elements took a real hit when a proposed 1 percent sales-tax increase was defeated. The tax, sponsored by a group called Team Jonesboro, would have brought in $18 million every year with half of it going toward quality-of-life improvements and the rest to building new police and fire stations.
“New generations are choosing cities over jobs now, and to get those people we have to make investments in our amenities and infrastructure,” said Scott Mcdaniel, who co-founded Team Jonesboro. “We tried to push this sales tax to get it all done at once, but we lost to the very well-organized TEA Party group in Jonesboro.”
McDaniel said that Team Jonesboro was disappointed in the result but heartened by the thin margin. “We lost by about 200 votes. This sort of thing does take multiple times to pass,” he said. “Batesville and Paragould both have similar increases that took three times to get approved by voters.” In the meantime, Team Jonesboro will continue working on ways to move the city forward. “We’re not a moment; we’re a movement towards a more unified Jonesboro,” he said. “With so many people hard at work in different areas and industries, you’re going to see radical changes here.”
Census Pop. % Change
1890 2,065 —
1900 4,508 118.3%
1910 7,123 58.0%
1920 9,384 31.7%
1930 10,326 10.0%
1940 11,729 13.6%
1950 16,310 39.1%
1960 21,418 31.3%
1970 27,050 26.3%
1980 31,530 16.6%
1990 46,534 47.6%
2000 55,515 19.3%
2010 67,263 21.2%
Est. 2018 76,990 14.5%
Fifth-Largest City in Arkansas
Incorporation Date: Feb. 19, 1859
Namesake: State Sen. William A. Jones
Median Home Value: $155,826
Median Annual Household Income: $44,822
Per Capita Income: $26,523
Poverty Rate: 20.4%
Median Age of Jonesboro Residents: 32.4