Barry County economy continuing upward trend

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sales tax revenues up, unemployment down, cattle market sees banner year

Despite challenges this year, mostly caused by severe weather, the local economy is continuing an upward pace, as sales tax revenues are still climbing, the cattle market saw a banner year, and tourists fought through the snow and rain to keep Cassville and Barry County prosperous.

Cherry Warren, Barry County presiding commissioner, said he's pleased with the progress in the county, as this year has produced 4 percent sales tax revenue growth, on top of a 10 percent jump in 2014.

"We've done well this year on top of a good increase last year, so I think the economy is pretty good with one month left," he said. "The livestock market did not bring in what it did last year, so that may have hurt us some. It has dropped off considerably and might have dampened revenues a little, but industry is doing really good, and I think it's been a pretty good year from a tourism standpoint.

Total sales tax revenue in Barry County in 2014 came in at $4,360,410.07, and this year through October, the two half-cent and one 0.125-cent taxes have brought in $4,119,124.06.

"Gas is cheap, so people are traveling more and have

a little more money to spend," Warren said. "Agriculture is probably still our biggest industry, but I've always said Barry County benefits from being so diversified. We have a lot of industry in Monett and Cassville, and the agriculture and poultry industries have done well. We are now growing quite a bit of corn and soybeans. The prices haven't been great, but the yields have been good."

Warren said the county is using the extra sales tax revenue to build up reserves in case of another economic turndown or local economic crisis. With a flat budget of $4 million, Warren said a reserve goal of 30 percent would mean the county is aiming for reserves of $1.2 million.

"At the end of this year, we'll probably be in the $600,000 range," he said. "We've been trending lower in the past month or two, but we're still up. We'd like to get the reserves back up to a level where if we have an economic downturn, we'll be OK."

Warren said some of that money is going toward improvements, such as a pending roof project at the jail to stop it from leaking.

Although Warren said he tries not to look for things to worry about, he is concerned about the bird flu this year.

"If you look at something like the bird flu, if that hit Barry County, that could shut down George's for six months, and that's 1,000 paychecks," he said. "We would really feel it if something like that happened.

"Another concern is what health insurance will do [for county employees] over the next couple years. Our insurance is up considerably this year, and I think that will be a problem for everyone."

Warren said despite widespread flooding in July, the county did not take too much of a hit.

"I don't think the flooding had a large impact on us," he said. "No one was down for very long, and the road districts are doing work with FEMA, and that has pumped a little extra money into the economy."

Warren said it is important for sales tax revenues to stay strong, as it is the only source of revenue for the county.

"Four or five years ago, we were down about $160,000 to $180,000, and we only operate on sales taxes and fees, so when the economy is not good, that hurts us," he said. "Most counties get money from a real estate tax, but we don't. Eighty percent of property taxes here go to schools, and the rest goes to other things, like roads, senior citizens, hospitals and the ambulance districts."

Looking forward, Warren said he is happy with the county's progress.

"We are very pleased and thankful," he said.

Business and industry

Contributing to the boost in sales taxes in the past two years has been business and industry in the Cassville area and throughout Barry County.

Michelle Bredeson, president of the Cassville area Chamber of Commerce board, said businesses have been doing well this year.

"I've heard a few companies have had some trouble finding qualified employees," she said. "The Chamber has continued to add new members, and some businesses have gone through improvements, like Sports World getting a new building."

Industry-wise, Bredeson said one new company has sprung up -- Steel Stone Memories.

"They make headstones out of steel, and it's great because they get their metal from Arning, so the money stays local," she said. "Steel headstones are also so much cheaper than the traditional limestone or granite, so it's giving people other options."

Cassville has also seen new businesses open their doors, such as the Dollar Tree and Hibbett Sports on Old Exeter Road near Walmart.

"Dollar Tree has not joined the chamber, but I've been working with Hibbett about joining because small towns are their niche, and they like to get involved."

Bredeson said with the incoming businesses and new members, she is excited for the future and hopes to bring even more new industry to the area.

"I'm really excited about Barry Electric's fiberoptics," she said. "That has the potential to allow us to bring in new industries we've never looked at before. I'd like to see Cassville recruit some call centers, and we've never had the technology to support them. Fiberoptics will allow us to look at those types of industries."

In the southern part of the county, Seligman has seen a significant increase in city sales tax revenues with the addition of a Walmart Neighborhood Market.

According to Brian Nichols, Seligman city clerk, the Walmart has contributed an extra 60 percent to the city's revenues.

"In less than six months, the store paid for itself," he said. "There's also some chit-chat about them possibly expanding."

Nichols said the income to Seligman essentially replaces revenue lost when Benton County, Ark., began selling alcohol.

"We lost $40,000 per year when that happened," he said. "Now, with two months of sales tax collections left, we've surpassed last year's revenues by $50,000.

I can't say that's 100 percent due to Walmart, because White Oak, [formerly Seligman Super Stop] has seen its revenue increase."

Agriculture

Despite a number of challenges this year, mostly due to excessive rain in the late spring and early summer, Tim Schnakenberg, regional agronomist for Missouri University Extension, said it was a good year for those in the agriculture industry in southwest Missouri.

"It's been an amazing year when it comes to cattle prices and rainfall," he said. "Most producers have not seen this combination in a long time. Overall, it has been a good year, but cattle prices are starting to drop, and at the end of the growing season, the rain stopped, so there are still challenges."

According to quantitative prediction estimate maps from the National Weather Service, Cassville received more than 30 inches of rain from January through July. July alone saw more than 10 inches of rain, most of which came on July 7 from Tropical Storm Bill, which drew Flat Creek well over its banks and flooded portions of the city.

Since the beginning of August, Cassville has seen about five inches of rain, and in the past month, not much rain has fallen at all.

"It was a good year for crop yields and rainfall, and corn, soybeans and forages did really well," Schnakenberg said. "Wheat had a terrible year, and the crop was a disaster because of fusarium scab.

"All the moisture brought a lot of that scab, and that resulted in docking of the price at the grain elevators, which is hard for any producer."

Schnakenberg said wheat prices fell to 50 cents a bushel this year. Prices are ideally $4 per bushel.

"Fifty cents a bushel after docking ... doesn't even pay for the costs to grow wheat," he said. "That makes it hard for any producer to make money."

Schnakenberg said it was a good year for hay with all the rain, even though farmers endured challenges with moisture and excess rainfall.

"We got a large amount of hay this year," he said. "The quality may have suffered some because, with those high amounts of rain, it was hard to harvest on time. But, we don't like to complain about rainfall, especially since now, we don't have any."

Challenges for cattle producers this year were few and far between, as the cattle market saw record prices.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Barry County ranks No. 5 in the state with 76,138 cattle and calves, and Lawrence County is No. 1 in the state with 109,709 cattle and calves. Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said the numbers fluctuate by a few thousand here and there, but Barry County averages about 35,000 to 40,000 at any given time.

Cole said Barry County's number is more in the 38,000-43,000 range now. Lawrence County is at about 48,000 cattle this year.

Calves this year were going as high as $1,700 or $1,800 per animal, and the highest steer price he saw was about $2,800, at a rate of about $2.81 per pound.

But, the peak in prices has led to a market downturn. Cole said a 550-pound weened steer will now go for about $1,125. Although the drop is significant, he said it is not time to panic.

"The cattle market is always on the move, and we enjoyed the run up in prices form about a year ago to spring and early summer," he said. "Now, it has gone down, and a lot of people think that's just the market correcting itself. In a perfect world, everyone would still be able to make a little money.

"Even with the drop, most realistic cattle owners feel they are in good shape and in the black instead of the red. Prices probably won't go as high as they were six months earlier, but they are still acceptable."

Cole said the drop in prices will force ranchers to make more management decisions and investment decisions.

"Cattle owners will have to manage their costs effectively and be more careful when buying replacements," he said. "Many also don't have as much interest in buying lots of equipment."

Management decisions will also be made concerning feed, as hay suffered a one-two punch throughout the year, with the excessively wet spring and summer making it difficult to cut hay on time, and a dry fall keeping the winter grasses from growing as well as normal.

"Most still look at this winter and think we are in pretty good shape," Cole said. "From a haylage standpoint, with the dry fall, we have not been able to grow as much for grazing, so some will have to feed that low-quality [fescue stockpile] hay. They should test it to see how good it is and give supplements to make up for the lack of quality."

Real estate

With new businesses and a slowly-growing population, the real estate business has been up compared to 2014, according to Jack Nickols, broker with Four Seasons Real Estate in Cassville.

Over the past five years, however, Nickols said 2015 is about average.

"Compared to last year, we are up," he said. "Compared to 2013, we are down. Compared to 2102, we are about even. Compared to 2011, we are way ahead, and compared to 2010, we are a little behind. We've been in about the same range over the past five years."

Nickols said the Barry County market tends to follow the northwest Arkansas and Springfield markets.

"We usually follow them by about three or four months," he said. "They have been up for several months down there, and we're right in the middle of that."

Nickols said the majority of sales in Barry County are residential homes less than $200,000, and farmland is a big draw when it is available.

"There's not a lot of jobs in Cassville bringing in people who want to build," he said. "And, homes sell more than farmland because there's not much farmland available. People who have it are holding on to it.

"But, when we list a piece of farmland, it does not stay on the market very long, especially crop land for corn and soybeans."

Nickols said the average sale price for a home in 2015 is about $108,000, down from a $110,000 average in 2014. Volume, however, has been up, as total home sales have reached $52 million, up from $45 million in 2014. He said there are also 80 contracts pending for deals that have yet to be closed.

He said most homes sell for less than $200,000, as anyone looking to spend more will usually build the home themselves.

"The Cassville school district is the biggest pull for this area, so most of our sales are in that area by far," he said. "We've seen a little jump in Seligman, but I'm not sure if that's because of the new Walmart or because of its proximity to Rogers, Ark. The Walmart has brought in more sales tax dollars to Seligman, but I think it's proximity to Rogers is driving home sales."

Nickols said the immediate future in real estate looks bright.

"I'd say the next six months will be up and up because we're still following the Arkansas markets," he said. "We'll ride that for another three or four months after they start going back down again."

Tourism

Tourism in the Barry County area stayed consistent this year, battling through challenges of snow on opening day at Roaring River State Park and the flooding of the park in July, which shut down operations for nearly three days.

Paul Spurgeon, manager of the hatchery at the park, which is overseen by the Missouri Department of Conservation, said 2015 saw a total of 108,327 adult and children's trout tags sold, down slightly from the 109,549 in 2014.

"Last year was up quite a bit, and we were on track to beat that this year, but we hardly had anyone in July, so we lost about 3,000 to 4,000 tags there," he said. "But, we nearly made that up in September and October. This was the best October we've had in the past 15 years."

Spurgeon credited the dry, sunny and warm weather late in the season for the good month, and the stream recovered from the excess inflow of water and became clear again.

"We had almost 14,000 tags sold in October, and it's normally about 10,000 to 12,000," he said. "During the recession, we were down to only 8,000. If the flood hadn't run so many people off in July, we probably would have beat last year's total."

Spurgeon said the hatchery is making progress with its equipment at the park, as it replaced recirculating pumps in January, but did not have to use them all year with the copious output from the spring.

"Next year, we're on track to start a flood gate project after the season is over," Spurgeon said.

Opening Day on March 1 was a little more spacious than normal, as 1,185 anglers, 996 adults and 189 children bought tags. In 2014, a total of 1,974 anglers took to the banks.

The 2015 total was still good for second-best in the state among trout parks, and Roaring River saw the most youth tags sold. Mountauk State Park recorded 1,368 anglers, including 1,242 adults and 126 children. Bennet Spring State Park recorded 1,178 anglers, including 1,079 adults and 99 children.

It was only the third time in 25 years that snow has been on the ground for Opening Day. In 2009, the last Sunday opening and a snow day, there were 1,547 adult tags sold and 287 for children by the gunshot. In 1990, on a Thursday, the total by 6:30 a.m. was 1,172,.

In July, Roaring River State Park pushed past a spell of flooding, as it saw its waters rise 4-6 feet in a matter of 10 minutes, washing out many campgrounds and public use areas.

The impact of the waters brought Gov. Jay Nixon to the park on July 10. He praised the local flood response efforts in Cassville and at Roaring River.

Spurgeon said the hatchery survived the floods, losing no fish. He said no buildings were damaged, but much of the park was littered with debris and heavy silt, and there was erosion by the bridges.

Spurgeon said the last major flood in the park was in 2011, and damage was similar, but in different areas.

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