Officials with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce announced a $2 million fundraising goal for 2017 to help fund job recruitment and retention efforts in the larger metro area.
The announcement was made at the chamber’s annual meeting held Thursday (Oct. 13) at the Fort Smith Convention Center. Also at the event, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, spoke about the resilience of the Fort Smith region in overcoming obstacles and righting the ship after the setbacks of the Great Recession. Womack also spoke of the Donald Trump “meltdown” and shared why he thinks the Presidential race is far from over for the embattled GOP nominee.
CHAMBER’S 2017 FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN
The new campaign seeks to raise $2 million in the next few years, with Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith and chairman of the chamber’s Board of Directors, hoping to get the commitments pledged by the end of 2017.
In a statement announcing the campaign, the chamber said previous capital campaigns have helped bring to the region “over 100 economic development projects resulting in 5,000 new jobs and $680 million in capital investments.” First National Bank and Oklahoma City-based OG&E were cited as early “pacesetter” companies in the campaign. At Thursday’s annual meeting, it was announced that the “pacesetter” companies had pledged $400,000 toward the goal.
Sicard, in an interview with Talk Business & Politics, said momentum from recent announcements – the ongoing corporate expansion of ArcBest Corp., Glatfelter moving into the former Mitsubishi facility, Zero Mountain and Gerber expansions, and the soon-to-open Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine as well as announcements in the next few months – should help the campaign.
“The successes help, obviously,” said Sicard. “And we think we are going to have more successes with our prospects in the pipeline and hopefully we’ll have more announcements this year and next year. So we need to have more in that (economic development fund) so we don’t run out of reserves. Now, that would be a good problem. But if we have these successes like we think we will, we won’t have any powder (money) left.”
And of the recent new jobs deals, Sicard said some of those happened primarily because the chamber did have some money to push the deal forward.
“If we had not been able to come to the table and leverage some dollars with the state, we would not have been able to get those projects over the finish line,” he added.
Sicard also said the campaign is important because the Fort Smith metro has struggled to recover from the 2006 closing of Whirlpool’s Fort Smith manufacturing plant and the ancillary jobs lost. He hopes that once again “the business community will step up” and help the chamber meet the $2 million goal.
FORT SMITH’S RESILIENCE
During the annual meeting’s keynote address, U.S. Rep. Womack called Fort Smith the “manufacturing center of the state” and celebrated its resilience in the face of the hardships it endured when he took office in 2011.
“Remember that we were licking our wounds created by the loss of Whirlpool. It was tough. It affected the psyche of the region. You might even say we were having a bit of a pity party over the issue,” Womack said, adding that not long after he arrived in Washington “word came the city was about to lose its heralded A-10 fleet” and “for the first time in a long time, Fort Smith was going to be without a manned flying mission from the Air Force. What a nice way to get started in Congress – with my largest city suffering from a terrible identity crisis.”
But Womack said as he got up to speed on the region, he “saw something in the leadership of the city and the chamber. It was a sense of hope and a sort of pride you find often in old, established communities that have been through good times and bad and always persevered.”
“While many similarly situated cities across the nation would wait for the federal government to ride in like the cavalry and solve their problems, the people of this city had other ideas and I think the results speak for themselves,” he said.
Those results, according to Womack, are clear in the aforementioned manufacturing gains at Chaffee Crossing and throughout the city as well as the region’s willingness to take up the drone mission following the 2014 departure of the 188th Fighter Wing. To this last point, Womack praised the city for publicly demonstrating their support for the 188th and for being willing to listen to “a vision and another mission of remotely piloted aircraft — a Star Wars sort of technology that is proving itself to be very effective on today’s battlefield.”
“Your response proved to the Air Force that Fort Smith was the right place for such a mission,” Womack said. “Fast forward to today where, as I speak, people you know are operating highly technical equipment just a few miles from where we are seated. The equipment is scattered at locations around the world and literally taking dangerous people off the planet with precision targeting through the use of a joystick out at the Fort Smith airfield.” The people operating those joysticks, he added, are “the same people who will go home tonight and enjoy supper with their family.”
‘A TOUGH WEEK FOR DONALD TRUMP’
Also Thursday, Womack touched on the “meltdown” of Donald Trump, which began Oct. 7 with the release of an Access Hollywood “hot mic” video tape that featured the GOP nominee admitting to kissing women without consent grabbing them by the genitals.
Trump has spent the last week in damage control as polling has shifted more heavily in favor of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Womack, taking inspiration from Samsung’s disastrous rollout (and recent shutdown) of the overheated Galaxy Note 7 phones, said that sometimes, “things don’t go the way they’re supposed to and it can get out of hand.”
“We were reminded of that this week as it was a very tough week for a national communications brand. The brand was subject to melting down and causing a potential firestorm. Company experts went back to the drawing board and fixed all those problems, but the assurances fell empty as the melting down continued.” Womack then added, “It’s been a tough week for Donald Trump.”
While the setup and punchline drew laughs during the address, Womack reiterated his support for Trump in comments to Talk Business & Politics after the annual meeting, noting it wasn’t too late for the GOP nominee to turn the tide before Nov. 8.
“As I said in my debate the other night, nobody can defend what he said in 2005, but I always pivot back to the fact that the election should be about ideas, and I believe in the ideas that the conservative movement of our country has for our nation. And the person best capable of leading us in that direction of the candidates for office, is Donald Trump,” Womack said. “Again, can’t excuse what he said, but it does not affect the fact that I cannot support the candidacy of Mrs. Clinton. I will support the candidacy of Donald Trump and hope and pray and am confident that House Republicans and Senate Republicans will help him understand the proper way forward.”
When asked about Trump’s attacks on some of the members of his own party, who pulled their support following the Access Hollywood tape, Womack said it was “unfortunate.”
“We should be above this. We’re in the middle of a fight right now. We don’t need to circle the wagons and shoot in. If we’re going to circle the wagons, we need to make sure we’re, metaphorically, doing so and shooting out. Because all we’re going to do is damage our brand with all this in-fighting and finger-pointing within our own party.”