Editor’s note: This guest commentary was written by Jim Youngquist, Executive Director at the UALR College of Business’ Institute for Economic Advancement.
Sometimes innovation happens in the most unlikely place. In March of 1955, Arkansas was that place. Through the vision of Winthrop Rockefeller, the support of Gov. Orval Faubus, and the vote of the Arkansas Legislature, the Industrial Research Extension Center (IREC) was created as the research and support arm of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC), which was also formed in that same 1955 legislative session.
Today, AIDC is known as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), and the IREC is known as the Institute for Economic Advancement, or IEA. IREC/IEA’s strength has always been its neutrality, its non-partisan credibility through its independent association with the University of Arkansas and University of Arkansas System. Its personnel lines have been part of both the Fayetteville and Little Rock campuses. Its physical location has always been Little Rock.
It has played a strong independent economic research and impact role for Governors, state legislatures, and state agencies. It has provided technical assistance, demographic and statistical information/analysis, economic development education and training, as well as strategic planning, analysis, and process to public and private individuals and entities throughout the entire state of Arkansas.
The IEA is officially designated as Arkansas’s Census State Data Center, a designation it has maintained since 1979. Since 1996, IEA is has been designated as a U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) University Center (UC). The UC’s major areas of focus are on the building of public-private partnerships throughout the state, encouraging regional approaches in both urban and rural areas of Arkansas, and to represent and support the efforts of the EDA.
IEA, in partnership with EDA and public and private leaders, is providing technical assistance and facilitation of the disaster recovery infrastructure effort for the cities of Mayflower and Vilonia, both recently devastated by tornadoes. As part of this effort, IEA in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District and the University Of Arkansas College Of Architecture’s Community Design Center are developing a disaster preparedness plan for the region. EDA will encourage the duplication of the disaster preparedness planning process for all of Arkansas and the entire southwest federal region.
The IEA houses and leads the EDA Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) Administration Program for the 37 RLF centers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
IEA maintains a very significant partnership with the Little Rock branch of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank (LRStLFed). In partnership with the LRStLFed, IEA provides an annual economic forecast for interested parties throughout Arkansas. The forecast conference, held in the fall of each year, considers both the national and Arkansas economies and makes projections for the upcoming year. IEA’s Chief Economist and State Economic Forecaster, Dr. Michael Pakko, provides the Arkansas forecast and partners with the LRStLFed throughout the year on various economic projects that affect the entire state.
Since 2008, there has been a renewed focus by IEA in supporting local governments in enhancing and supporting their overall economic development and quality of place. While the outcomes have benefitted individual cities and towns, many of the efforts have been regionally and statewide focused.
IEA has partnered with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and its Metro Little Rock Alliance for two significant ongoing initiatives. The State of the Region: Metro Little Rock Annual Report Card is a joint effort that considers a number of aspects of the metro area’s economy in comparison to competitive, comparable, and aspirational metropolitan regions throughout the midwest, southwest, and southeast United States. Public and private sector leaders use the findings to address challenges and make the region more competitive economically and enhance its quality of place.
The other significant partnership effort of IEA with the Chamber/Alliance is the biennial public-private metropolitan region visit. We have completed two such visits to Kansas City and Oklahoma City. The trips bring public and private sector leaders together to learn from each other and focus on the successes of their regional public-private partnerships.
As an EDA UC, IEA is charged with supporting and working to enhance the work of Arkansas’ planning and economic development districts (PDD/EDDs). Established in 1968 by the Arkansas Legislature as the official planning and economic development districts for the state, the eight PDD/EDDs are entities of the local governments within each of the designated regions, thus the municipalities and counties are the owners and responsible for the policy and direction of their regional body. IEA acts as the secretariat for the PDD/EDDs’ state association, the Association of Arkansas Development Organizations (AADO).
IEA, in partnership with AADO, AML, and the Association of Arkansas Counties recently completed a web-based, statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which is the first statewide local government economic development plan in the history of Arkansas. The completion of the strategy, along with the individual regional CEDS developed by each PDD/EDD, makes every municipality and county eligible for EDA capital improvement and other funding.
Indeed the vision of Gov. Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Legislature has lead to IEA arguably being the most comprehensive university-based community economic development research, technical assistance, and training institute in the United States. It has been a remarkable 60-year adventure.