NWA Dining Dialogue: Steve Clark’s chamber focus

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 138 views 

Steve Clark says the economic development portion of his job is all about “Eds, Meds and Innovation.”

Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, believes the future socio-economic success of Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas depends on improving the breadth of and access to education (Eds); expansion and improvements of the regional healthcare sector (Meds); and continued efforts to promote entrepreneurship (Innovation).

Not having ever worked with a chamber, innovation was part of Clark’s life in January 2009 when he was named the chamber chief. Clark served as Arkansas’ Attorney General between 1978 and 1990. During what would be an unsuccessful bid for Fayetteville mayor in 2008, Clark caught the eye of chamber leaders who thought he might be a good fit to lead the chamber.

Clark, who has worked to rehabilitate his image following the fraud conviction that pushed him out of the public eye in 1900, said managing a chamber with many members is similar to politics.

“You have the small business owner … and all the way up to a large company with thousands of employees. They often have different agendas,” Clark said.

One of the first lessons he learned was that chamber leaders – paid and volunteer – in Northwest Arkansas were focused on working together.

“It was made clear that you will speak and say ‘regional’ with every third word,” Clark said with a laugh.

In between frequent visits from Powerhouse waiter Nathan, Clark talked about the role of the chamber in the community. He “absolutely loves” the job, but did admit that the least favorite part of the job is in dealing with those who think the chamber should be able to immediately address an issue or policy over which the chamber has no authority.

“These people can be very passionate. … But Fayetteville is a very passionate city and that’s also a reason I love my job,” Clark said.

Following are other notes from the Clark interview.
• With former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross saying he would not enter the 2014 Arkansas Governor’s race and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel dropping out of the race after admitting to an affair, any thoughts on the 2014 race?

“The only thing I know about politics is that it changes. It changes a lot. … And this far out, a lot more is going to change,” Clark said.

Clark also said too much of the analysis is on access to money or fundraising strength.

“Money isn’t always the real issue. Some of it is about timing,” Clark said.

But he did say Democrats will need a strong candidate to survive GOP momentum in Arkansas.

“It will be difficult for a Democrat to win in 2014 if they don’t nominate a really strong standard bearer,” Clark, who was a Democrat during his years as Attorney General.

• Although Republicans are now in control of the Arkansas House and Senate, Fayetteville is home to Democratic legislators Sen. Uvalde Lindsey and Rep. Greg Leding. Both are well respected – Leding is the minority leader in the House – by their peers. How has the connection helped the chamber?

Clark said Lindsey and Leding have been responsive to chamber issues. He said Leding “does a wonderful job of navigating the tough issues … and working across delegation lines.” Clark praised Lindsey’s ability to provide the community feedback on legislative activity.

“He has such great insight and he has a great read on the process and the people in it,” Clark explained.

• You have in this interview frequently mentioned the importance of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. What drives your passion in this arena?
Clark said the Northwest Arkansas has been well served and supported by the Walton, Hunt and Tyson families and is confident that will continue, but “we need to find other shoulders to stand on in the 21st Century.”

Acumen, cycleWood and the innovation emerging from the Iceberg are just a few of the examples Clark mentioned that could result in new business operations and job growth in Northwest Arkansas. He also said work trends suggest that a future economy could have up to 40% in the workforce working for themselves and/or working from home.

“We can’t be tied to a monolith that worked for us in the past century,” Clark said.

To that point, Clark said a chamber’s job is to develop leadership that can lead a community and support economic development efforts.

“Leadership is the most important. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a community and you can’t do economic development,” Clark said.

• What can the community do to foster leadership?
Clark mentioned the “Leader in Me” program the chamber is sponsoring in elementary schools within the Fayetteville Public Schools.

The program, developed by Franklin Covey, emphasis “essential” practices of good leaders. According to Franklin Covey, the “process integrates the principles of personal leadership and effectiveness in everyday, age-appropriate language into the core subjects and curriculum of an elementary school. It is a holistic school-wide experience for teachers and students and creates a common language and culture within the school built on proven principle-based leadership skills found in The 7 Habits.”

Clark said he approached Schools Superintendent Vicki Thomas about allowing the program in the schools.

“I told her, ‘I’ll raise the money if you will support it,’” Clark explained, adding that the chamber has raised about $105,000 so far.

Clark said the goal is to have the program in all nine elementary schools within four years.