With reappointments by Gov. Mike Beebe (D) of Chester Koprovic and Lee Webb, the Fort Smith region will continue to be home to two of the 16 members of the high-profile Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Koprovic, who is the board chairman of Boyd Metals, B&C of Fort Smith and Kopco, was first appointed to the commission by Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) in 2001 following the death of Fort Smith businessman Tom Barr. When his fourth full term expires in January 2018, Koprovic will have served almost 17 years as a commissioner.
Boyd Metals is a metal service company with offices and operations in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. B&C and Kopco are metal fabrication and welding operations in Fort Smith. (Koprovic also has an ownership interest in The City Wire.)
The focus of the commission and agency has shifted during his time.
“When I first when on, most of the emphasis was to create jobs, to bring in new jobs,” Koprovic said. “Now we work a lot on retaining the jobs we have … and trying to grow those companies.”
Koprovic said incentives offered by the AEDC have improved thanks to support from the Arkansas Legislature and leadership from Beebe’s office. He’s supported Beebe’s focus on connecting education and economic development, but said the state needs to do more with its education efforts.
“Coming out of high school, a high school graduate needs to be prepared to step into a job, and right now I don’t think they are prepared to step into a job,” Koprovic said.
Webb, a member of the Sebastian County Election Commission and co-owner of Economy Trailer in Fort Smith, was first appointed in 2010. This will be his second term on the commission. He said his first surprise as a commissioner was learning that the group “is actually a working commission and not just a ‘show up’ commission.” He also shared Koprovic’s assessment that the agency has been more focused in recent years on the retention and expansion of existing operations.
“Job retention has been a pretty big issue the last few years. I think we’ve been pretty successful with that, and we’ve also been successful in getting some other companies to move here,” Webb said.
‘LAST MINUTE’ FRUSTRATION'
He said a top frustration of serving on the commission is how tough it is to recruit new operations.
“I’m sure we have from 30 to 50 active files, with the staff working to get new jobs to Arkansas. … I’ll tell you that a frustration for me is when Arkansas may have the best site and the best deal and the (AEDC) staff has really pulled together a great deal, but at the last minute some political thing comes in that we really had no control over,” Webb explained.
While he wouldn’t label it a frustration, Koprovic said he still hopes to see the state land an auto manufacturer.
“I would like to see Arkansas get an automobile plant. We’ve tried to get one almost the entire time I’ve been on the commission. We’re one of the few southern states to not have a plant like that,” Koprovic said, adding that he believes “there will be more auto plants built in America.”
It may not be a large auto plant, but Webb is optimistic the agency will announce new jobs or job expansions in the next year. He said the effort by Wal-Mart Stores to return manufacturing to the U.S. has helped generate more prospects for new jobs and expansion in Arkansas.
“We want to create more jobs, and I think we are on the right track for that. They (AEDC staff) are working with a lot of projects right now. I think you’re going to see some good announcements come up in the next year. … And you also have that initiative from Wal-Mart to bring those (manufacturing) jobs back and that is really helping a lot right now,” Webb said.
Koprovic said his time on the commission has provided him an education on economic activity in Arkansas.
“It’s been one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. We go to different cities each month, and we get to meet people we’d never get to meet … and see products we didn’t know were being made in the state,” Koprovic said.