story by Ryan Saylor, photos by Michael Tilley
Tuesday’s (Nov. 5) 125th Anniversary celebration of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce brought together business leaders and dignitaries from across Arkansas, with Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe praising the “resiliency” of the area during tough economic times.
The anniversary crowd was estimated at between 550-600.
Beebe, the keynote speaker for the event, spent much of his time highlighting the qualities of Fort Smith's economy and workforce. He began by speaking about the benefits of having the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in the area to create advantages both for the local economy and for students looking to either start a career or change careers through education.
Beebe specifically highlighted how the university works with industry, especially manufacturing, to train the workforce in the area.
Speaking of manufacturing, the governor was quick to point to his views on the importance of manufacturing to the Fort Smith economy.
"A country that can't make stuff isn't going to be able to maintain its presence," he said, adding that a country without a manufacturing base will be a country in peril.
Pointing to Fort Smith and the exit of manufacturers like Whirlpool who have either shuttered or reduced production in Arkansas' second largest city, Beebe said such actions are now proving to not be beneficial to the manufacturers.
"It wasn't that long ago that Whirlpool packed up and took off to Mexico for cheap labor. That's being reversed, not by Whirlpool, but across the board. This country is starting to make stuff again in ways that (have been) sorely needed for a few decades,” Beebe said. "First of all, cheap labor's not all it's cracked up to be. Some of it isn't as cheap as it used to be. Rising wages in China have caused them to be less competitive and the transportation costs that go along with those higher wages have made manufacturing onshoring again a more viable alternative for many of our companies."
Coupling the onshoring efforts of more and more manufacturers with "plain ole American patriotism," the governor said the state and Fort Smith would see the benefits of increased American manufacturing production.
"This country is recognizing that and realizing that and making stuff again and guess who the beneficiaries are going to be? It's going to be those communities with a culture that understands that old manufacturing process. And where is that any better than Fort Smith, Arkansas?"
As Beebe put it, Fort Smith has "manufacturing DNA" in its blood. He said while he was fully aware of the challenges faced by the Fort Smith community as a result of lost manufacturing jobs, he has been impressed with the way the city has dusted itself off and moved forward with other projects, such as the HMA service center that officially opened its doors to the community today and will eventually employee 500 in the former Phoenix Village Expo Center.
"You've been knocked down, and it's not just Whirlpool. We were all so excited about Mitsubishi and construction jobs were important as we built a state-of-the-art manufacturer, but because of lawsuits and other issues it's still not what we thought it would be. Countless other examples of disappointments and lost jobs and lost opportunities in Fort Smith. And yet time after time, when you get hit in the gut, you get back up. When somebody slaps you around, you get back up and slap them back. And you create new chances and new opportunities and you never quit."
The governor also highlighted the changes taking place at the 188th Fighter Wing, pointing out how the departure of the A-10 fighter jets appeared to be a major blow to the Fort Smith region. But once again, the city dusted itself off and embraced a new mission focused on unmanned drone technology.
Beebe concluded by telling gathered business and community leaders that Fort Smith is a community with people who understand working together and noting the Chamber's 125th Anniversary.
"There's not very many chambers that are 125 years old, I don't know if there is another one. So we celebrate you today. We celebrate Fort Smith. We celebrate history and the promise of tomorrow that is Fort Smith. And so I'm happy to be here and to say I'm proud of you. Proud of the way you continue fight. Proud of what's going on right now – we're going to have a Marshals Museum, you can book it Danno. It didn't happen as fast as I wanted it to, but it's going to happen. It's going to create another tourist stop for our people. … Fort Smith, raise your flag high. Stick your chin and your chest out. You've done well. You've done well in spite of whatever life's sent you. You've done it by working together and realizing that working collectively, you're stronger than you are individually."