Taking place today at Hempstead Hall was the 37th Annual Hempstead County Economic Development Luncheon. During a catfish and chicken meal, attendees heard reports on the Hempstead County Economic Corporation’s recent work.
The guest speaker was Erin Gooden, Director of Recruiting for Hope Baking Company.
The event began with the business meeting portion of the luncheon, which was called to order by Vice President of HCEDC, Steve Lance who stood in for the organization’s board of directors chairman, Ladell Douglas, who could not be present. Lance introduced several guests, including Chase Emerson, representative from Senator John Boozman’s office; Paul Henley, mayor of Washington; Don Still, mayor of Hope and recently retired HCEDC president Steve Harris.
Lance then said of the list of investors in the corporation “that's what makes this thing work and we appreciate you.” He then introduced the
HCEDC board members
present, sitting in tables to either side of the elevated stage and podium.
“We're here today number one, to be grateful. Number two is to celebrate accomplishments. We're going to meet and hear from the ownership of the [Hope Baking Company], we're going to recognize new investors and more. And number three is to look ahead. And we intend to do just that,” Lance said.
He then told a story of being told by late insurance agent and city leader George Frazier he was to hold the flag at the start of a past HCEDC luncheon in what was then the Western Sizzlin banquet room. “I've never even seen that done. I didn't know what to do. George Frazier said to do well,” Lance said. Mike Huckabee was scheduled to speak.
When the time came around for Lance to do the job, he hesitated. “I'm over here standing and [Frazier] said, ‘We're going to say the Pledge of Allegiance,’ and everybody's standing and it's cold and still, not a peep going on. And I'm standing there, and suddenly I hear this voice. ‘Steve, you start it.’”
After the prayer by board member Gary Chambless, and the presentation of the U.S. and Arkansas flags by Lieutenant Braddock and two members of the Hempstead County Sheriff’s Office Drill team, Lance called the business meeting to order.
The minutes from the 2022 luncheon’s business meeting were approved by the board. The financial statements that had been distributed to all in the room were also approved.
At that point, Anna Powell, the HCEDC president, who took office back in May of this year, reported on the organization’s work since the last meeting August 23, 2022. Powell credited her predecessor Steve Harris for his work up to the point she began her tenure.
She showed a slide on the screen of an image of Hempstead County which shows the highways running through. “I think about our location in state county as an asset. So a lot of times when I'm getting presentations with groups regarding moving and becoming a part of our community, this is a slide that I use,” she said.
She next showed a slide of workers and leaders from Hexion and Funder pictured receiving large checks from HCEDC to help defray the costs of rail spurs that have been built or upgraded near their facilities. “Basically, the company puts the money out first, and then we come back in and try to ease some of that with a grant up to $50,000,” Powell said. Her slide disclosed that Hexion received $11,268.22 and Funder received $8,293.50.
Powell also acknowledged the efforts of those who advocated in a losing cause for the quarter-cent sales tax, defeated last year, that would have provided funding to the HCEDC to recruit businesses to the area. “We will continue to try to find a way to get public support for the projects and the infrastructure updates that we need to keep ourselves economically competitive in Hempstead County,” Powell said, then led a round of applause for those who worked to promote the tax.
She then praised the previous president, Steve Harris, for his tenure with HCEDC. “Steve facilitated a lot of things that were under the radar that a lot of people don't always know about. And we want to say thank you for all of your work in the eight years,” she said.
Powell also mentioned the winning of Category IV (151-499 Employees) Arkansas Business of the Year from Arkansas Business magazine in April of this year. “I'm so proud of Pafford, Emergency Medical Services and all of their growth over the past several years. And I'm most proud that they do it with integrity, and that they are a part of our community,” she said.
Next, Powell reported on inquiries by companies for information from HCEDC about potential site locations and for specific data. In 2022, 12 were submitted; in 2023, seven so far.
Goals Powell has set for the remainder of 2023 include a Mayor’s Summit for mayors of towns in the county in October. Another project for that month involves making an advantageous connection between HCEDC and real estate groups so that companies considering locating in the county can get more up-to-date information on the sites that are available by looking at HCEDC’s website.
Addressing investors in the corporation, Powell said, “You believe in Hempstead County, and you believe in what we do every day to retain jobs, because that's also where economic development is. It's not always new jobs. It's not always new businesses, but it's retaining our existing businesses, and making sure that they have the tools they need to be successful in our region.” She added that their funding would help upgrade the website so that more information would be available there for prospective businesses to see.
About the announcement by Husqvarna that it would be shutting down its factory in Nashville at the end of 2024, Powell said, “We'll be affected by that. And so I wanted to share with you what those numbers are. We just recently got the final numbers on assets a little less than 150 jobs … So 150 Folks that live in Hempstead County work at Husqvarna. And so they will be displaced in the year 2024.”
On the other hand, Powell mentioned that Hope Baking Company has been in expansion mode since March with its current number of jobs being 100. The Tyson Hatchery expansion has also proceeded this year, its construction phase taking up 13 to 15 dump trucks every day. New Millenium, she said, continues to reinvest in its facility in the county. Danson has changed owners and approved new capital development projects for their site.
After Powell concluded her speech, Steve Lance called for a motion to adjourn the official meeting. It was made and Lance declared the meeting adjourned. Now the speakers and awards portion of the luncheon could begin.
Lance began this by introducing the new HCEDC president Anna Powell, describing her education and experience prior to taking on that role. A Stuttgart, Arkansas native, she got her degree in political science with a minor in public administration from University of Central Arkansas in Conway and has held positions at University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana since 2016, her last ones being Executive Director of Institutional Advancement and the UAHT Foundation. SWARK.Today featured her in 2022 as a member of its 20 Under 50. “You can tell that she brings energy,” Lance said. “And that energy is contagious. And so we're excited about the future with Anna Powell as president of the Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation. So welcome back to the same the same time.”
Powell then took the podium again, saying, “I gave him that so he could have some sentences to read. But I didn't want him to read all of it. But thanks for saying that. So sweet.” She then introduced several Hope Baking Company employees in the audience, including its General Accounting Manager Debbie Marsh, its Human Resources Director, Justin Romero, a superintendent.
In introducing the guest speaker, Erin Gooden, Director of Recruiting for Hope Baking Company, Powell said, “She has been with the bakery for several months and is constantly searching for people to interview. She started at quality control in 2012 and later moved into the HR field. With her background in quality she became the perfect person to do hiring for industrial companies and lives in New Boston. She has two daughters. One is a senior in high school and one is a senior in college. Her Friday nights are spent at Lions Stadium, cheering on her high school senior. Please welcome Erin to speak to us today.”
Gooden took the stage and podium. “This is the kind of thing Debbie would do. But part of her agreement to come back out of retirement is that she no longer has to do this,” Gooden began, as several attendees laughed.
“Within seconds of meeting Dan [Serra, East Baking Company’s owner], I knew that I would work for him. I knew that I would partner with him and help his vision become a reality. And the team that he currently has in place is the right mixture to make that happen.” Gooden said.
Gooden said East Baking began 20 years ago, as a bagel shop in Ludlow, New York that then secured a distribution contract with the University of Massachusetts. When demand “grew exponentially,” Serra decided to produce his own supply of baked goods, and the company grew even more from there. “Now in 2023, Dan owns nine bakeries throughout five states, that include Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Vermont, and now Arkansas,” Gooden said.
Serra has historically bought bakeries that already had their own staffs, Gooden said. This was the case with his purchase of Southern Bakeries, which had many employees who had been with the company for ten to 30 years. “That is priceless, the experience that they bring to our bakery. So we're naming the bakery Hope. The word doesn't just represent the town that we're located in. It's actually a motto. And so our hope is to return the bakery to its former glory. Our Hope would be to instill a work culture that's inclusive and family oriented.”
Currently, Gooden said, Hope Baking has recently begun supplying to Olive Garden, HEB and Walmart. Ongoing improvements to the facility “will include having four lines running three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for holidays. So this should create over 250 additional jobs.” She said in the month of August, the company had hired 104 people.
She also mentioned plans for improvements: “There are some things mechanically that we need to do such as refurbish and replace some of our current equipment. And doing so will eliminate waste, reduce energy usage and increase our profit margins. In August, we bought the old Stephens building. And the idea for that is to create a storage space and freezer so we no longer would have to ship frozen products out of town. So right now, there's an incentive proposal on the table from the state of Arkansas and we're currently reviewing that.”
She thanked the members of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission who were present and said she looked forward to watching Hope Baking Company’s future unfold “with all of you.”
Next came the presentation of prizes, grants and awards. A shake of a jar of business cards deposited inside resulted in the cards bursting out onto the stage floor. But when they were all put back and the jar shaken again, the winning card drawn by Powell belonged to Jesse Murphy, who won himself an electric meat grinder.
Grants were presented in the form of large checks to Hexion and Funder leaders and staffers who were present.
New investor awards were presented to Farm Credit, Powell’s Grocery, Bobcat Freight, Tyson, and Express Employment by specific board members of HCEDC who gave speeches highlighting the contributions of those businesses to the community.