Formation of Fort Smith Regional Council announced

story by Michael Tilley

The wait is over for those who have believed the Fort Smith metro area needed a high-powered, “good suits” club to improve the region’s socio-economic standing.

Now the wait is on for results.

Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Paul Harvel on Friday (May 18) announced the formation of the Fort Smith Regional Council, a group of area “CEOs” who seek to emulate the success of the Northwest Arkansas Council and a group formed in 1963 in Little Rock. Harvel made the announcement during an economic development update luncheon with around 300 chamber members.

The NWA Council was formed in 1990 “to promote the growth, vitality and development of Northwest Arkansas.” Its initial leadership was from top executives at Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc.

Development of an interstate connection (now Interstate 540 between Alma and Fayetteville) and a regional airport (now the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport) were a few of the top goals of the NWA Council.

Harvel said the Fort Smith Regional Council has received “strong engagement” from area business leaders “who have a lot of ability” within their respective companies to “exert influence.”

Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based First Bank Corp., is the inaugural chairman of the council. Speaking to the luncheon crowd, Sicard said the first major priorities of the council will be to develop a partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council, focus on infrastructure projects and focus on workforce education.

“Yes, we will narrow those down,” Sicard said when asked if the newly formed council would seek specific objectives within the three goals.

Judy McReynolds, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based Arkansas Best Corp., will serve as council vice chair, and Cliff Beckham, president and CEO of Van Buren-based USA Truck, has agreed to the council’s secretary-treasurer post.

The members pay dues to belong to the group — payment not disclosed — and 20 are members, Sicard said.

In addition to Sicard, McReynolds and Beckham, the Fort Smith Regional Council members as of Friday are:
Leo Anhalt, SSI Incorporated
Dr. Paul Beran, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
Michael Callan, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp.
Steve Clark, Propak Logistics
Sam Fiori, K-Mac Enterprises
Paul Fox, OK Industries
Ryan Gehrig, Mercy-Fort Smith
Lisa Grenier, Kraft-Planters
Melissa Hanesworth, Hiram Walker-Pernod Ricard USA
Bill Hanna, Hanna Oil & Gas Co.
Jim Patridge, BancorpSouth
Craig Rivaldo, Arvest Bank
Melody Trimble, Sparks Health System
Ron Tucker, Baldor Electric Co.-ABB
Jim Walcott, Weldon, Williams & Lick
William S. Walker, Stephens Production Co.
Fred Williams, Williams-Crawford & Associates

Harvel will serve as the council’s first director. He said no formal initial meeting of the group is yet planned.

In terms of creating jobs, the council has given itself a tough mandate.

The number of employed during March was an estimated 116,735, up from 115,892 during February but almost 5% below the 122,809 employed in the region during March 2011. Unemployed persons in the region totaled 10,108 during March, down from 11,711 during February and below the 11,778 during March 2011.

The regional labor force — estimated number of working-age people in an area — totaled 126,843 during March, a decline of 7,744 people compared to March 2011. The regional labor force consistently remained above 130,000 beginning in April 2004, but fell below 130,000 in December. The labor force reached a high of 139,544 in June 2008.

Harvel also spoke on other economic development issues.
• According to chamber figures, Harvel said businesses in the region made capital investments of at least $190 million, and created 920 new jobs during 2011. Harvel said he realizes the number of area jobs fell in 2011, but said the job creation helps reduce the economic pain.

• Some of the capital investment in the area is for robotics and other advanced manufacturing, Harvel said. The good news is such investments help keep operations in the area, but the bad news is they don’t produce a lot of new jobs.

“Robotics are all over this city,” Harvel said.

• The chamber has raised $2.3 million for its economic development fund during 2011 and to-date in 2012. Harvel said that money has contributed toward expansions at several companies, including Gerber, Golden Living and River Bend Industries.

• Whirlpool is gone, and the company is not going to re-open the plant in the future, Harvel said. Whirlpool announced Oct. 27, 2011, it would close the large Fort Smith plant that produces refrigerators and has also produced ice-makers and trash compactors. The Whirlpool closure will result in the loss of 917 jobs. However, Whirlpool’s Fort Smith plant employed more than 4,500 in early 2006.

“They are gone. They are not coming back,” Harvel said, adding that he believes all private and government organizations “did everything they could do” to keep Whirlpool from leaving.

• The Mitsubishi facility, completed but unoccupied, is not a failed project, Harvel said. Mitsubishi officials announced April 2 their decision to “mothball” the Fort Smith wind-turbine manufacturing that was expected to employ 400 at full production. Company officials cited litigation with General Electric and a weak demand for wind turbines as reasons for the move.

Harvel said he is confident the plant will eventually be utilized.

“Some day, jobs will be there. … Maybe not with turbines,” Harvel said.