Bald Knob, a wisp of a city in central Arkansas, is slowly coming out of the economic turmoil brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The hiring signs are up around the streets of this city of less than 3,000 people – 90% of whom are white and nearly a third live under the poverty line. Bald Knob, located in the Trump-loving White County, is considered one of the poorest towns and cities in Arkansas.
Once the strawberry capital of the world, which brought in millions of dollars in tax revenue and provided steady jobs to locals, the town began falling into decline in the 1950s. Like many small towns in the rural South, many of its businesses moved or closed. More recently the city has survived on generous federal grants arising from the pandemic. The money offers a break to the small municipalities still looking for a more certain future for its residents.
And while much has been made of the reported surge of young people pouring out of cities looking for a quieter life among the simplicity of Main Street America, Bald Knob doesn’t seem a likely destination for the new generation of virtual workers, according to the city’s mayor.
Although the small city has experienced hardship and booms in the past, hope remains a strong currency in Bald Knob and is still a valuable quality that continues to define the spirit of places just like it.
Reckon spoke with Mayor Barth Grayson about his stewardship of Bald Knob as it traversed a difficult year, and his ambitious plans for the future.
The pandemic has been difficult for a lot of small communities across the country. Municipal income has been hit hard, businesses have shuttered, unemployment has been volatile. How have the people of Bald Knob fared over the last year?
Mayor Barth Grayson:
It’s affected our economic base to a certain extent but not as badly as other small towns our size. Bald Knob is blessed to be in a network of highways that travelers come through, and they eat at our restaurants and buy our gas and stay at our motels, so our sales taxes haven’t changed a whole lot. Other than that, our school went virtual for a while. A lot of our businesses scaled back and now they’re trying to get back open. There are signs out wanting to hire people, but people aren’t in a hurry to go to work because they’ve have gotten that stimulus and unemployment money.
Was there a moment during the last year when everything became very real for you, where you realized the enormity of what was happening?
The first positive COVID test that we had in our workforce was in our police department. So we had to deal with that and shut our dispatch down for a week and I had to learn all the covid protocols real quick. We haven’t had any detrimental health problems with COVID within our city work structure. But there’s been people that have lost both sets of their grandparents. And that was definitely a hit home situation.
About 30% of the residents in your town live under the poverty line and the pandemic has been particularly difficult for impoverished people across the country. They typically have less savings, less ways to soften the blow of the pandemic and are usually the last to recover. How has the town supported those people?
Well, we’re blessed to have churches that have food banks. Two of them are just right next to my house. And another one is a block away, so I get to see what’s going on. One of them comes in from Searcy, the country seat, because they know Bald Knob needs extra help.
Over the past year the lines have definitely gotten longer and even now they are still going strong.
Is the slow recovery one of the downsides of small-town life in America? Most indicators suggest the economy is recovering well yet small towns are struggling.
I think it is because we don’t have any gainful employment. We’ve got a few smaller construction businesses, but as far as having an industrial plant that employs large numbers, the one we had moved to Searcy several years ago. The building had some issues and is being used for storage now instead of putting another business in there. That might seem like a small issue for big cities but it’s a big deal here in Bald Knob.
Small towns don’t typically have a lot of money floating around to help ease unemployment, start new initiatives, or lift the mood of the town during dark times like these. What have you been able to do as mayor?
Well, we have had some good things happen. We had Fox News come in from New York about a month ago when we declared Pipeliner Appreciation Day. We had a big banner made. They did a story about our pipeliners being displaced because of the Keystone pipeline being shut down by Biden. The Arkansas attorney general along with others states is suing Biden over it. That’s a big deal for us because a lot of people in this town work on pipes all over the country. We’re the pipeliner capital of the world.
You mentioned that Bald Knob is the pipeliners capital of the world and they have been displaced by the keystone pipeline being halted by the current White House administration. Can you explain a little more about that?
Well, and bear with me, Bald Knob started out as the strawberry growing capital of the world, but Florida and Louisiana started producing more strawberries than Bald Knob because they have a longer growing season. I was raised growing strawberries back in the early 60s. I would take strawberries to the market when I was 13 or 14 years old because we did what we had to do back then. But when the strawberry business got displaced all those decades ago, Bald Knob got involved in the pipeline business. The pipeline companies put more and more of our local people to work and we used to have a welding department in our high school, which is now at Searcy ASU [Arkansas State University] campus and even today they still have welding training. Pipelining is still very important to us and this area.
A lot of our workers are now struggling because the keystone pipeline was stopped. They were working on the prep work and now a lot of them had to come home and look for other jobs. It’s been one thing after another this year.
What does the future look like for Bald Knob?
The good thing that came out of this is a FedEx executive out of Memphis saw the Fox News story and contacted me a couple of weeks ago. He said FedEx is looking to hire 1,000 people and they want to come over to Bald Knob to see if they can entice some of our young workforce.
They did a presentation and said that they would call me this week so we would set up a time for a job fair. It’ll be at the high school and we’ll have refreshments. This will impact not just the people living in our city limits, but our whole trade area.
They’ve offered to send a bunch of buses over here every single day, drive it from Bald Knob to a training camp in Memphis and bring them back. It’s unbelievable. That’s a good Fortune 500 company!
So we’re very hopeful here in Bald Knob.