By Christine Miyawa
Delta Digital News Service

POCAHONTAS – The demographic in Pocahontas has changed tremendously in the past five years, as new businesses mushroom to cater to a growing populace of diverse cultures.

Until 2016, the town consisted of 93.6% Caucasian and 0.0% Pacific Islander. In 2015 plans to construct a chicken plant in Pocahontas began, setting in motion the wheel for economic growth the town currently enjoys.

In the beginning, many locals protested the construction of the chicken plant claiming it would open the town to foreigners. Local business owners feared it would cause minimum wage to rise, posing competition for the limited workforce. The city council went through great lengths to educate the locals about diversity and tolerance and how beneficial the chicken plant would be to the town’s economy. After several town hall meetings to convince the locals and business owners, Peco, the chicken processing plant, finally opened its doors in the Spring of 2016. Located along Highway 67 at the border of downtown Pocahontas and Lawrence County.

“Since Peco opened in 2016, our company has recruited 3,879 workers,” said Joie Saienni, the branch manager of Onin Staffing Company that recruits staff for Peco.

The plant hired many locals from management staff to track drivers and sanitation workers. Many locals found jobs in the hatchery, live processing, de-bone unit, evisceration unit and packaging section in quality assurance department, raising the local hourly wages from a minimum of $8.25 to $22 an hour for those working in the live processing.

Initially, the plant hired only locals from Pocahontas and nearby towns within Randolph and Lawrence Counties, but have since replaced them with workers from as far as the Marshall Island, in the Pacific.

With the opening of Peco, the demographic of Pocahontas began to change. The 2010 census shows a population of 6,608, and as of July 2018, the population had risen to 6,644. The 2020 census will tell how much the number has grown since. However, evidence shows a shift in the race composition and growth in new businesses. From 93.6% white, consisting of an older generation above 18 years old, according to the 2010 census, to young Micronesian families from the Marshall Islands.

Many Marshallese have enrolled their children in the Pocahontas Public School system. The superintendent of the Pocahontas School District, Jerry Martens, said Pocahontas School District has 250 new pupils from the Marshall Island.

In 2017 the Pocahontas School District began plans to build a new elementary school to cater to the growing population. The former Pocahontas School District Superintendent Daryl Blaxton predicted in 2017 a rise in the number of new students from 200 – 500 students by 2018. The new elementary school project is underway.

Because of the population shift, several new businesses mushroomed, adding to the growth of the city’s economy.

The city reported steady growth in the past few years with 2019, seeing a rise in revenue of 11%.

Paula Thorpe, who works for the Pocahontas Water and Sewer Company, said that in the past five years, she saw a rise in new water customers from 440 in 2015 to 500 in 2019.

Several businesses, including the grocery chain store Harps, opened in Feb. 15, 2017, giving competition to Walmart Superstore. Harps added to its services, a butchery, providing custom beef cuts and pork cuts.

Soon after the construction of Harps grocery store and a gas station was completed, the First National Bank built a second branch next to Harps, along Highland Boulevard, offering banking opportunities to newcomers and new businesses.

Among its customers is Herman Lopez, who owns a Mexican restaurant in Pocahontas. He has been through the lows of business. A shoe factory, which was a primary employer in the city outsourced when the government signed NAFTA, and with its move, most of the mom and pop businesses in town died. The town square had been left with a few stores as most shops closed down. For more than seven years, Lopez runs his Mexican restaurant, one of the only two Mexican restaurants in town.

Two years ago, he expanded his business, opening a mini-market grocery adjacent to his restaurant to cater to the needs of the Marshallese customers who have moved in town.

The mini-market called Mercadito Latino contains exotic food ranging from Fufu flour-a special kind of flour made from Plantain or Cassava to potteries and house deco. Lopez imports his groceries from far and wide, including Mexico. Lopez says business is booming.

Across the road from Lopez’s store, a new convenience chain store, Jordan’s Kwik Stop 52, a gas station and a travel center opened November 2019. Adding to the growth of the economy of the city. Jordan’s Travel Center is the only travel center in Randolph County along Highway 67.

With many new people in town from different places, the city, which was within a dry county for a good number of years, finally managed to gather enough votes to pass a liquor ordinance. And, as from fall 2019, Walmart, the biggest supermarket in town, began stocking liquor. Pocahontas has since seen its first bar in many years. Located across the road from the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce.

The city has also started work in 2018 to expand its court and jail size.

With the progress the city made due to the change in demographic, there are fears the scourge of the coronavirus outbreak may pose significant setbacks to the progress made over the past few years. But there is faith in the city’s capacity to handle the situation, especially with the merger of St. Bernards Medical Center and the Five Rivers Medical Center in Pocahontas in 2019 to improve services.