The past year has been one of recovery for Sequoyah County's economy, though it has not been easy.
According to numbers provided by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Sequoyah County's unemployment rates improved last year.
In December 2012, the most recent month unemployment statistics were available, the county boasted an unemployment rate of 7.6%. The number was a drastic improvement from the same period in 2011, when the county's unemployment rate was 9.2%, according to the bureau's figures.
But Judy Martens, executive vice president of the Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce, said even with the drop in unemployment, the county still has one of the highest unemployment rates in Oklahoma.
"We fluctuate between (a ranking) of one of the top three in the state," Martens said, explaining that the state's other metro areas, such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, are better positioned to compete in a tough economic climate than Sequoyah County due to local and state incentive programs that encourage more development in the state's largest metro areas.
The decline in the economy is evident when reviewing economic data from the previous 10 years.
A review of the BLS numbers revealed that in June 2006, Sequoyah County had its highest workforce, with 18,708 individuals either working or seeking working. Of those, only 1,046 were unemployed, resulting in an unemployment rate of 5.6%.
In December 2012, the workforce had reduced to just 16,428 workers, with 1,241 seeking work. That resulted in an unemployment rate of 7.6%.
THE WHIRLPOOL EFFECT
Sequoyah County's efforts to reduce its high unemployment numbers has been a struggle. The closure of Whirlpool's Fort Smith facility dealt a blow to the county, Martens said.
"Whirlpool did hit us hard. Thirty to 40% of our people go to Arkansas everyday for work," she said.
Sallisaw Mayor Shannon Vann said the economy of his city, with a population just below 9,000, as well as the surrounding county, with more than 40,000 residents, was deeply affected by the closure.
"We definitely felt the impact of the layoffs that we've seen in the Fort Smith region last year, although it wasn't as bad as previous years in 2009 and 2010," Vann said. "It stabilized last year with sales tax revenue and we saw positive growth."
Vann pointed to Cellofoam North America as a sign of positive growth for the county.
"The Sallisaw Improvement Corporation did sell a manufacturing facility in our industrial park," he said. "Cellofoam, it is a plant here in Sallisaw, will be moving into that facility."
According to numbers provided by the Sallisaw Chamber, Cellofoamemploys 80 people and with the expansion to a new facility, Martens and Vann are both hopeful that it will result in added jobs.
Martens also said retail growth has started to take place again in the county, bringing with it jobs and sales tax revenue.
Another area of the local economy that appears to be doing well is the gaming industry. Cherokee Nation operates casinos in the cities of Roland and Sallisaw which, according to figures provided by the tribe, pump millions of dollars per year into the local economy.
The tribe estimates that its operations, which also include hotels, travel plazas and health centers, account for "$78 million in county production."
In addition to the millions in county production, the tribe says its impact results in another $20 million in local vendor purchases and account for more than $109 million in county output.
The result is 1,076 jobs that have been created that rake in a combined $29 million in county income. Of those jobs, nearly 526 are jobs based at the tribe's two casinos in the county, according to numbers provided by the chamber.
While the tribe has a major impact on the local economy, other companies and organizations are large employers, as well. According to the Sallisaw Chamber of Commerce, the following are some of the other large employers in the county, along with the number employed at their Sequoyah County facilities:
• People Incorporated - 350
• Sallisaw Public Schools - 314
• Walmart - between 285-300
• Sequoyah Memorial Hospital - 254
• SLW Automotive - 80
• Aviagen - 50
Vann said in order for the county to continue shrinking its unemployment number, cooperation with other government entities, along with those in the private sector, must continue and grow.
"Basically, it's all about communication — having open communication lines between other areas and other towns," he said.
Martens added that working with the Fort Smith Regional Alliance, along with other agencies and groups, was essential to Sequoyah County and its workers for future growth.
"When something good happens for Fort Smith, it's good for Sallisaw," she said.