Opinions mixed on economic impact of controversial Southside mascot issue

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 550 views 

Responses to a question sent by Talk Business & Politics to more than 50 Fort Smith area business leaders and owners were mixed about the impact of the Southside High School mascot controversy on economic growth and development.

The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on July 27, 2015, to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song associated with the school since it opened in 1963. The Board voted to discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year. A “Maverick” mascot has been adopted, and “Wabash Cannonball” is the new fight song.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen has pushed an active and public campaign to overturn the decision and reinstate the Rebel mascot and the fight song. Part of the fallout from the issue includes the recent surprise resignation of longtime and popular Fort Smith school Athletic Director Jim Rowland.

During the ongoing controversy and process of changing the Southside High School mascot, some have suggested there is an economic development angle to the issue. The angle is that the Rebel mascot and associated imagery could be a disadvantage in recruiting young talent and new companies to the city and region. There are others who doubt the Rebel mascot has, or would have, any harm on economic growth.

The question to the business leaders was, “Do you think the mascot change will help, harm or have no impact on socio-economic development in the region?”

A medical industry executive who did not want to be identified said the mascot issue has resulted in not being able to recruit a cardiologist and a primary care physician to the city – two positions the exec said are “vital” to meeting health care needs in the Fort Smith region.

“One was very frank with us about that (mascot). He did not feel our community was progressive enough to move here and raise his family here. So I can tell you, it does harm the economy. It does harm our city,” the executive told Talk Business & Politics.

But that was the most direct evidence of economic harm provided in the responses.

Paula Glidewell, with Glidewell Distributing, said those affiliated with the school when the mascot was chosen “say the reasoning behind the name changes of Northside and adding Southside, were very contentious and racist at the time.” However, she’s uncertain of any broad impact.

“I am not sure of the economic impact, but know if I were black and thought about moving to Fort Smith and saw all the pick up trucks driving around with confederate flags on them, I would not move here,” Glidewell said.

Jeff Pryor, with Pryor Marketing and a member of the Central Business Improvement District, does believe the Rebel mascot could be a problem. However, he’s not happy with the new mascot choice.

“I think it definitely can have a negative emotional effect on people, especially in this day and age. However … Marshals makes more sense because Mavericks is basically the same thing as Rebels,” Pryor said.

Michelle Cernak, with Westark Plumbing, said the controversy over the mascot change might have more of an impact.

“I think the fighting over the change would deter others from moving here for business. If your community can’t play well with others in the sandbox why would any newbies move here?” Cernak responded.

Cernak also believes the mascot issue is an unnecessary distraction from real problems.

“There are more things to worry about than a flippin mascot. Kids are cutting themselves, drugging themselves and sexing it up. They don’t need to have part of our community focus on whether or not the Rebel mascot is the best choice or not. Let’s focus on educating,” she said.

Like Cernak, Mark Rumsey said the community has more pressing issues than a mascot. Rumsey, president and CEO of Zero Mountain Inc., which has operations around the state, does not think people or companies make economic decisions based on mascots.

“However, they do make decisions based on quality of life issues such as: Visual attractiveness – no one wants to live in a place they are embarrassed to call home; Things to do – bike trails, restaurants (other than fast food), sidewalks, the arts; and First and foremost – the quality of education that their children will receive in a community,” Rumsey explained in his response. “In all the discussion about the mascot, I didn’t hear one word about how it affects the quality of education in Fort Smith.”

George Moschner, executive vice president of risk management and compliance at Baldor Electric Co., said the mascot issue “will have no impact on the socio-economic development in the region.” But he is critical of how the change happened.

“I think the Fort Smith school Board should have asked the residents of Fort Smith to vote yes or no at the normal school election for the proposed mascot and fight song changes,” Moschner said.

David Potts, owner of Potts & Company accounting firm, said the question of impact should consider the relationship between perception and the “risk” associated economic investment.

“Changing the Southside High School mascot would help the cause of economic development if Fort Smith is looking for new investment from businesses and investors located outside our geographic area. The confederate flag has become a symbol of conflict and racial identity to most of the population of the United States. A Rebel without a confederate flag was a step forward, but the rebel is still a symbol of the ‘Southern Cause.’ Economic investment is concerned about risk. A community that promotes a mascot that represents social separation, even unintentionally, might cause an investor’s perception of their investment risk to increase. A community still willing to tolerate symbols of racial identity may create the belief that locating in Fort Smith would deter needed talent from moving here,” Potts said.

Continuing, he noted: “For all my friends who are Southside High School alumni, I understand you’re not racists and I understand you believe the Civil War was not about slavery. You can claim the confederate flag and a rebel mascot are not symbols of hate and racial identity. But economic development isn’t about what you believe or what you say. Economic development is about what investors perceive. Most of these people will disagree with what you believe. So if you want economic development to find its way to Fort Smith at a faster rate, a sacrifice may be needed.”