A report recently released on Faulkner County’s overall economic health showed the county relatively unscathed by national comparisons during this recession, the worst since the Great Depression.

Roger Lewis, author of the report and former director of institutional research for the University of Central Arkansas, said symptoms of economic stress are present, but not depressing for the area.

The industry that absorbed much of what losses the county saw, according to Lewis, was the hotel and motel business. Profits declined 7 percent since 2008. The county currently is home to 21 hotels or motels. Lewis said the decline is a mystery to him, but says less tourism may be the cause.

Restaurants in Faulkner County saw a 5.4 percent increase in revenue, according to the 2 percent prepared food tax figures. That increase represents $130 million a year in sales, and around $11 million a month. Restaurants topping the charts with annual sales are Chili’s Bar and Grill at almost $4 million, Chick-Fil-A at $3.6 million, McDonald’s on Salem Road at $3.5 million, Cracker Barrel at $3.5 million and Marketplace Grill at $2.9 million.

Retail sales have decreased slightly in the last year, according to sales tax figures. Total retail sales in 2009 were around $1.2 billion for the city of Conway and $1.5 billion for the county, including Conway.

County sales tax figures were in the area of $7.3 million, down 1.1 percent in the previous year. Lewis said these figures are an indication of Faulkner County’s resilience. 

"Considering the economy, that’s not bad," Lewis said. "Counties look for increases in this number to supply raises for employees, but there was no increase, no raises. Many cities are hurting, but even compared to Arkansas, we’ve been hurt very little."

Lewis said as a city, Conway is transitioning out of manufacturing and into a more knowledge-based economy, supporting the new Hewlett-Packard call center and Acxiom. More companies like the two "seem to be the wave of the future for Conway."

"Just like we transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing, we will transition from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy of employment," Lewis said.

Agriculture for the area has all but disappeared, according to reported income figures of production sold. 

"We used to be an agricultural economy. Now we’re far from that. People are getting out of the business," Lewis said.

Agriculture sales dove 43 percent in one year, according to data compiled by Hank Chenney, cooperative extension service agent.

Agricultural sales in 2008 were $29.9 million, and in 2009 only $16.9 million.

According to the data, the local beef industry profit went from $16 million in 2001 to $1.3 million in 2009. 

Though lottery data available only represents sales since its inception Oct. 31, 2009, figures are available ranking Faulkner County No. 4 in lottery ticket sales. About $8.2 million were spent in Faulkner County on lottery tickets since the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery began. Coming in at number 1 in sales is Pulaski County with $45.8 million in sales.

After the 2010 census is complete, Lewis believes, Conway will be number two in the metropolitan statistical area. If Lewis is correct, Conway will be just behind Little Rock in urbanized areas, followed by North Little Rock.

"The census bureau has projected Conway to be about 57,000 and North Little Rock to be 58,000. But I think we’ll be larger," Lewis said. "They’re not growing like we are, and they’re landlocked and pretty well developed."

The new standing, Lewis said, will boost the economy in the county as new retailers, companies and restaurants map out the statistical area for potential business.

If Conway is classified as an urbanized area, new grants will become available. 

"Even though we did a census in 2005, and we were at around 52,000, the federal government does not recognize that intermediate special census. Every time a grant is applied for, the 2000 census is used," Lewis said. "Conway will be classified as an urbanized area, and then we will have different grants available, especially in the area of transportation."

A remarkable increase in bank deposits in the county’s 57 branches may be equated to the natural gas industry and royalty payments, Lewis believes. The number rose $101 million.

The natural gas business is "a little soft right now," Lewis said. 

"Wells are still being drilled but the price of natural gas has sunk to less than $4 per 1,000 cubic feet," Lewis said. "We’ve seen $7.50 before, and we’ll see the prices come back up."

Lewis said he believes the reason Conway and the county have escaped much economic hardship is the leadership in place today and in years past.

"The leadership we’ve had over the years, and today is the reason we are lucky to live here," Lewis said. "The Conway Development Corporation and companies like Conway Corp. have kept us intact. You can’t put money on the leadership here. Towns that don’t have these things in place are hurting."

The 2009 Faulkner County Annual Economic Report was presented for the 59th time to the Conway Rotary Club. The responsibility of the report was handed to Lewis 15 years ago. The publication is compiled by Lewis and supported by UCA’s College of Business.

For a look at Lewis’s report, visit www.pulseofconway.com.

(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by e-mail at courtney.spradlin@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)