Consensus unclear on city’s role in economic development

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 73 views 

No clear consensus emerged on the city of Fort Smith role in regional economic development during almost 90 minutes of discussion on the issue during Saturday’s (Jan. 10) city board of directors retreat.

The retreat was held at the Elm Grove Community Center at Martin Luther King Park.

Involved in the discussion were the city board and staff, Dr. Jerry Stewart, chairman of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, Sandy Sanders, interim president of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Cheryl Garner (pictured at right), who became the new chamber economic development director Jan. 5.

The discussion had three important elements.

Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker cut to the essence of the debate about two-thirds into somewhat of a rambling discussion of what groups should be involved in economic development.

“Who is taking responsibility for what?” Baker asked.

Sanders said the city, chamber and University of Arkansas at Fort Smith “all have equal relationships” in the economic development effort.

For confidentiality reasons, Stewart suggested the chamber be “the facilitator” that brings all partners together when working with companies interested in moving or expanding to the area. Fort Smith City Administrator Dennis Kelly agreed, saying it is a “tremendous benefit” to have the chamber handle sensitive details that otherwise would come under the Freedom of Information Act if handled by the city.

But there are things the chamber can’t do. Workforce training, for example, is best handled by the UAFS. Many quality of place improvements — parks, riverfront development, bikeways, etc. — typically require leadership from the city.

Garner said in her first few days on the job she senses a “pent up demand” to improve the quality of place so that the city and region can recruit the higher wage jobs.

City Director Bill Maddox said he believed the groups involved in economic development too often look to the city for the bulk of funding for infrastructure, incentives and other financial support to land new jobs.

“There is a bottom to this well,” Maddox said of the city’s finances. He said the chamber and the FCRA should so more to financially support economic development.

City Directors Cole Goodman and Kevin Settle objected to Maddox’s statement, with Goodman saying the city has an obligation to “keep investing for the future.”

Stewart said he appreciated Maddox’s concern about city finances, but said the recent investments the city has made at Chaffee to help recruit Mars Petcare, Graphic Packaging and other businesses will provide jobs to those recently laid off by Whirlpool and other area businesses.

“That has to be considered,” Stewart advised. “But this is a good discussion” about the value of economic development investments, Stewart continued, because “we all need to be held accountable.”

Kelly, just a few months on the job, offered the first public insight into his thoughts on economic development.

He said there are four “avenues” in which the city supports economic development: infrastructure support at Fort Chaffee; downtown Fort Smith development; riverfront development; and infill development in the remainder of the city.

Kelly also attempted to answer the Who-is-charge of-economic-development question, by saying there should not be a “cookie cutter approach” to such an effort. To that end, he encouraged board members to be open and flexible as each economic development project is brought before the city.

Fort Smith City Director Kevin Settle (lower left) talks about the city’s role in economic development during the board’s Jan. 9 retreat.