Arkansas is home to major military installations, numerous National Guard and Reserves units, and military manufacturers. Gov. Asa Hutchinson would like to keep it that way.
Hutchinson announced the creation of a Military Affairs Committee at Camp Robinson on Sept. 21 with a helicopter behind him and military personnel around him, explaining that the state’s military installations not only contribute to national defense but also $1 billion annually to the state’s economy.
The Little Rock Air Force Base, the state’s fourth largest employer with more than 8,000 airmen and 1,500 civilian employees, contributes more than $813 million to the local economy. The Pine Bluff Arsenal, the state’s only remaining active Army installation, has a $60 million annual payroll, while the Air Force’s 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith has a $66 million economic impact with average salaries of $87,000.
Those numbers are why the Military Affairs Committee is being housed in the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. AEDC Senior Manager Becky Rheinhardt has been assigned to support military installations as one of the state’s targeted industry sectors.
“I think it is very appropriate that is in that agency. … As (AEDC Director) Mike Preston knows and anyone in economic development, the first opportunity for growth is that within our own industry,” Hutchinson said at the announcement.
BEING A ‘GOOD PARTNER’
Hutchinson said he was seeding the initiative with $400,000 from his discretionary account to establish it and produce an economic impact study. Using that funding and contributions from private initiatives, Hutchinson said he hoped to showcase what those installations do, generate more community and state support, and hopefully increase the local installations’ missions – for example, a cybersecurity mission at Camp Robinson – at a time when defense budgets are shrinking and efficiencies are expected. He charged the committee with seeing how the private sector and local communities are tied to military installations and determine what kind of supports and infrastructure are needed.
“The Department of Defense [is] looking at those states that are good partners,” Hutchinson said. “If we’re not a good partner and we’re not supporting our military installations, that’s a downgrade.”
Hutchinson said the $400,000 is one-time funding. Future budgets will depend on the committee’s recommendations and on upcoming needs. Infrastructure projects might require an infusion of funds where the state pays half and the local community pays half.
The 10-member committee is led by Brad Hegeman, president of Nabholz Construction Services, and includes Preston and AEDC Deputy Director Danny Games, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Maj. Gen. (Ret) William Wofford, Arkansas National Guard adjutant general from February 2007 to January 2015.
READY TO DO BUSINESS
In addition to supporting military installations, the committee also will support military-related manufacturers. Hutchinson said in his announcement that his appointment of the commission was not a response to defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s unsuccessful attempts to land the military’s huge contract to replace the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which will replace the Humvee. However, he said Arkansas efforts, which included a special legislative session to create an incentive package, sent a signal to the military that Arkansas is ready to do business.
Wofford said in an interview that other states do more to entice and support veterans. A number of states such as Oklahoma offer free college tuition to their state’s National Guard members, while Arkansas offers only partial tuition assistance. That imbalance leads some Arkansans living in border areas to enlist in those states’ units, which means they’re not available in case of a state emergency here.
Wofford sees the committee’s mission in broad terms. Among the National Guard’s core recruiting pool of men and women ages 18-25, most aren’t eligible to join because of their education, police record, a morals issue or drug addiction. Societal issues such as low high school graduation and high obesity rates also affect readiness.
The committee is divided into two subcommittees. Wofford is chairing one dealing with the policies the state should develop to keep and support the state’s military installations and manufacturers. According to Griffin, that committee will be looking at what tax and regulatory policies are needed to, for example, make Arkansas sites more resistant to base closures. The other subcommittee will be considering how to implement some of those recommendations in terms of outreach and public relations.
BECOMING MORE ‘ATTRACTIVE’
Griffin said some states have full-time entities pursuing new military jobs.
“There’s a lot of things that communities and states can do to make themselves more attractive, and states that aren’t constantly asking those questions can find themselves behind the eight ball if that sort of thing comes up,” Griffin said.
Griffin said the committee held its first meeting the day of the appointment and then met in Fort Smith with the 188th. Over time, it intends to travel to all the key military installations and manufacturers. Discussions so far have been open-ended.
In addition to military installations and manufacturers, military veterans are another potential economic development target. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the state has 249,274 of them. Griffin, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, said when an airman retires from the Little Rock Air Force Base after 20 years in service, he or she likely has a lot of technical expertise that the state should try to keep here.
“A lot of them say, ‘I’m not going to stay here because of the tax rate. … If the people are leaving because your policies are chasing them off, don’t you want them to stay when they are high-tech workers?” he said.