Chamber speakers tout regionalism, economic diversity

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 142 views 

Regionalism is part of the allure of Fort Smith and it will be key to the future growth of the area's economy. That is according to two speakers at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's Business Expo today (May 10).

Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett spoke to chamber members and expo-goers during breakfast and lunch, respectively.

During Williams' breakfast speech, he said some of the keys to the breakneck growth taking place in central Oklahoma, which has some of the nation's lowest unemployment at a little more than 5%, has been focusing on growth of the region that makes up the greater Oklahoma City metropolitan area, not just the city itself.

His organization, Williams said, is responsible for economic development work throughout the area, which includes 10 counties within a 50 mile radius of the city's downtown.

"Companies don't look at cities, counties or even states. You have to look at regional," he said. "Until you do that, you'll be middle of the road."

He said nearly all corporate site selection begins by not looking at individual cities, such as Fort Smith, but instead looking at the region, such as the counties in Arkansas and Oklahoma that make up the greater Fort Smith area. Williams said the reason companies look at a region versus a city is about consistency.

"Companies want one voice. You must have that mechanism in place, otherwise you get X'd off the list."

For a region to be successful, he said it is important to define the region and create a methodology for success.

"Who carries the ball?" Williams asked, once again explaining that the cities and counties of a region must come together to speak collectively, or as he said earlier, with one voice.

The items companies are looking for are labor force, market access, supplier resources and infrastructure, according to Williams, and all of those will rarely be found in one city or county.

"They're regional assets, not city or county assets," he said. "If you don't have assets, companies are gone."

To prove his point of finding a regional workforce, he discussed how among the 10 county region that makes up the greater Oklahoma City area, one third do not work in the same county where they live, resulting in movement of nearly $7 billion in payroll.

According to figures provided by Williams, the result of regionalism has been a gross metro product of $57.1 billion, making the greater Oklahoma City area the 118th largest metropolitan economy in the world, eclipsing the GDP of countries like Ecuador and Guatemala.

He said what had worked in Oklahoma City could work in Fort Smith, but he said regionalism would be the primary driving force.

"The region should function like a corporation."

In addition to regionalism, Williams said diversification was key for the phenomenal growth experienced in Oklahoma City's economy during the last decade. While the city is largely known for its ties to the oil and natural gas industry, diversification has led to aerospace and biomedical industries employing more individuals than gas companies, he said.

In order to make Fort Smith a more recession-proof region, much like the Oklahoma City area, he said diversification must continue adding more diverse employers and breaking away from manufacturing, which has been Fort Smith's bread and butter for much of the last 50 years.

"How do you diversify that?" Williams asked rhetorically.

While Fort Smith is transitioning and trying to diversify as the city looks to add jobs and lower its high unemployment, columnist John Brummett told lunch-goers that Fort Smith was not in a bad spot. If anything, it is fairing better than other Arkansas cities.

"You're more on your own than any other city in the state," he said. "You're the second largest city in the state, you're the second largest migration of workers into your city, and just a bonafide good-sized community and you're probably the least state-subsidized community for its size in Arkansas."

Brummett said in Little Rock, much of the economy was based on state government and the lobbyists that come with it; in Hot Springs, the community does well due to gambling; and Fayetteville is what it is due to the decision to place a land-grant university within the city limits.

"I like things that are on their own. I like to think of myself as on my own," he said.

While Fort Smith is on its own in regards to the rest of the state, Brummett said it is clear to the rest of the state that Fort Smith is part of a unique region that spans the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

"I'm telling you, I can't turn on the TV in Little Rock right now without a commercial coming on saying, I think this is a direct quote, 'So you know everything there is to know about Fort Smith? Think again.' Whose commercial is that? The casino."

In explaining the uniqueness of the Fort Smith region, he explained that he found out first hand that Fort Smith is more than Arkansas when he started getting hate mail from readers of his column in 2000. Where did the letters come from? Poteau and Sallisaw.

The regionalism term was repeated time and again and Brummett said not only does the area have a good opportunity to focus on its economy and recover from the economic blows of the last few years, but the region must embrace its history as the "last semi-civilized town" before being in the wild, wild west.

He said it was also important to see the value in the city and to invest in the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, such as creating a scholarship fund for local students, as a way to strengthen the region.

In closing, Brummett said he was a fan of the Fort Smith region and would continue to be so, with regionalism being key.

"You're a great community. I'm on your side. You're an all-American city which means if America has a problem, you've got a problem. If America has an opportunity, you've got an (opportunity)."