Pine Bluff ranks 361st out of 363 in projected economic growth report

Pine Bluff’s projected economic growth through 2020 is among the lowest metropolitan statistical areas in the nation, according to a report released by the United States Conference of Mayors and prepared by IHS Global Insight.

Of the 363 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States, Pine Bluff was ranked No. 361, with a projected 1.3 percent annual economic growth. The area came in at 350th in gross domestic product, with an economic output of $3.3 billion annually.

“The area of concern for Pine Bluff in this study should be future growth,” said Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “The study looked at the pasts of cities to make projections on their economic futures. And Pine Bluff’s past has been one of population and job decline.”

Deck said that although the Pine Bluff MSA’s employment rates have improved in recent years since the economic crisis — decreasing from 11.1 percent at the crisis’ peak in 2011 — the Pine Bluff metropolitan statistical area’s current 8.4 percent unemployment is still one of the highest in the state.

Even though unemployment rates have decreased, employment rates have lessened as well, which is odd, Deck said. The cause: People living in the Pine Bluff area are leaving the workforce completely, she said.

“Unemployment rates in Pine Bluff are improving,” Deck said. “But not for a good reason.”

Employment rates are dictated by the amount of people in an area either employed or actively pursuing a job, Deck said.

Deck listed three occurrences shaping Pine Bluff’s economical present, and more important future: Baby boomers are retiring, leaving gaps unfilled in the workforce; more students are seeking higher education rather than jumping into a volatile job market; and a large number of people are leaving the labor force for neither of these reasons, which Deck defined as what should be the “most concerning fact for leaders in Pine Bluff.”

“It’s hard to have economic activity and growth in a city when employment rates are decreasing,” she said.

A metropolitan statistical area is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a place where people live and work. Pine Bluff is a small metropolitan statistical area geographically and populationwise — comparatively. This is why Deck said the study should be taken with a grain of salt, because New York City is being compared to Pine Bluff dollar for dollar in economic output.

The Pine Bluff metropolitan statistical area consists of Jefferson, Lincoln and Cleveland counties, while the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area is made up of four counties and the Little Rock metropolitan area contains six counties within its borders.

But although a large number of Pine Bluff residents make the daily commute on I-530 North to their jobs in Little Rock, that number is not large enough to consolidate the Little Rock and Pine Bluff metropolitan areas, Deck said.

“All of these projections are only projections,” Deck said. “It’s amazing what we can’t know, but the projections made in this report are consistent with trends seen over the years.”