Talk Business reported a few months ago on a new collaboration between northwest Arkansas business leaders and central Arkansas’ power brokers. The two groups met in Fayetteville and Bentonville last spring and one quick outcome from that confab was a new marketing web site to draw movie and TV productions to the state.
The two groups met again last week in Little Rock and reported making progress on several fronts, including support for a highway tax proposal this November.
Elizabeth Small, president of 50 for the Future, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce economic development arm, tells Talk Business that the regions focused on “narrowing the scope” of what can be worked on together now and what can be put in a category to work on at a later date.
“We all recognized the importance of the state highway tax and support the highway department’s efforts to make this a reality in November,” Small said.
This November, Arkansas voters will consider a temporary 10-year half-cent sales tax increase with the funds dedicated to repairing and expanding the state’s four-lane highway network.
Small said K-12 education, higher education and labor force training were another important area of discussion. She said work will begin immediately to draft a plan to “constructively approach and work with legislators” on these topics.
On the economic development front, Small said there was no dissension among participants regarding the importance of jointly marketing regional assets and the state as a whole.
“For me, it’ll be a bingo moment when people come and visit Crystal Bridges and then they drive down to Little Rock and then they drive to Lakeport plantation in Lake Village. Then, I’ll feel like we will really have accomplished something,” she said.
“I see a lot of commitment among the folks around the table who’ve given a lot of time and seem very enthused about coming together,” said Mike Malone, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a group of influential business leaders from the region. “I also think the two regions — for whatever reason — they’ve got a lot more in common than we’ve got to compete over.”
EDUCATION – A TIE THAT BINDS
Education could be a deep tie that binds. The group has focused on Gov. Mike Beebe’s ambitious goal to double the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025.
Business leaders view the education improvements requiring effort at all levels from kindergarten through college through a lifetime of workforce training and retraining.
“I think the best message that we can send to the whole state is that northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas are in this together,” said University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart, who also serves as chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council.
“I think there are a lot of collaborative efforts, particularly in the education sphere,” he added, “My hope is we’ll become united that we’ve got to do more for education in this state.”
THE GOVERNOR CHIMES IN
Beebe addressed the group at a Wednesday night dinner at the Clinton Presidential Library. He said he wasn’t going to try to motivate the two groups because he knows they understand the critical mission of the state.
He thanked them profusely for their efforts and reminded them that all regions of the state will benefit from this and future endeavors.
Beebe did say more than he has previously about his post-gubernatorial activities. He reiterated that he’s not running for higher office, despite his political popularity, but he did imply he might be called into limited public service if asked.
“In two-and-a-half years, I’m going to go to Searcy. Ginger and I are going to do a little traveling. I might try to do a little cheerleading for the state of Arkansas across the country if somebody wants me to as an advocate for our people, but I’m not going to do anything full-time,” Beebe said.