State agencies meet in NWA, talk jobs (corrected)

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 132 views 

For the first time the leaders of three prominent state agencies left the confines of Little Rock to meet in Northwest Arkansas.

Thursday (April 12), the Economic Development, Highway and Transportation and State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commissions met at Crystal Bridges for their joint meeting. Each gave a presentation focusing on their common goal of making Arkansas a better place to live, work and play. (A reception was held Wednesday night for the three groups. Link here for photos from that event.)

Deputy Director of Global Business for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission Becky Thompson outlined specific grants and tax incentives her agency helps new business. She said 255 jobs have been created with investment projects totaling $105 million. Since 2007, there have been 25,000 new announced jobs although not all were created.

The statistic is most noticeable in the Fort Smith area with the loss of Whirlpool and the vacant Mitsubishi wind turbine assembly plant.

“We’re concerned at losing jobs,” said Mary Ann Greenwood, AEDC chairman. “We also know that businesses are going to make allocations of resources where their profitability is going to be greatest.”

Director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Commission Scott Bennett oversees the improvements of 16,000 miles of highway, the 12th largest in the country.

He outlined the programs that would begin construction if a half-cent sales tax increase passes in November. The tax would be in effect for 10 years and finance a $1.8 billion bond program for a four-lane highway system linking every part of the state.

In Northwest Arkansas, it would widen the Fayetteville-Bentonville corridor to six lanes and complete the Bella Vista bypass to two lanes. It would also build a bypass from North Springdale, west toward XNA connecting somewhere in the Tonitown vacinity.

“The bond gives you the money up front…under construction in five years and finished in seven and paid in ten years. If you raise the money … it would take 20 years or more to widen I-540 in Northwest Arkansas,” said Bennett.

For a speedier timeline, a toll system isn’t a solution.

“There are restrictions on tolling the interstate. You can’t put up a toll booth to collect revenue. There are only three states that the federal government will allow to toll the interstate for improvements. All those spots have been taken,” said Bennett.

Taxpayers driving around the area might have noticed updated highway signs with tourist destinations. In the next few months, drivers will also see signs for a new golf and winery trail.

State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission Executive Director Richard Davies outlined new projects already underway. The Lake Fort Smith Dining Hall and Group Lodge are set to open in May. Davies recently announced the approval for 10 cabins to be built at Lake Fort Smith. Construction on the cabins is estimated at $1.899 million, with completion estimated for December.

More than $5.7 billion in travel-related expenses was spent in Arkansas last year, that’s an increase of more than 4%. Some travelers may have noticed new state welcome centers. Six new state welcome centers have opened in Texarkana, El Dorado, Corning, and Van Buren/Fort Smith, Blytheville and Lake Village, since 2005. A new Center is currently under construction at West Memphis, and the next center scheduled for replacement is at Helena-West Helena.

“It’s the best thing since canned beer,” Davies joked.

Improvements are being made in the state, however the commissioners know balancing the budget is king. Arkansas is one of a dozen states who ended fiscal 2011 in the black.

“We are one of the few states who have managed their money,” said Bennett, “We understand things are difficult but there are opportunities to improve the state and make good things happen for Arkansas.”