Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director Mike Preston is so convinced of the connection between job recruitment and tourism growth that the state’s tourism chief is scheduled to travel with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Preston on their next trip to China.
Preston spoke Monday (March 13) to a large crowd gathered at a breakout session as part of the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism held this year in Little Rock. The focus of Preston’s talk was about about tourism also being an important economic development tool for the state.
Speaking to tourism officials, business owners and advocates from around the state, Preston assured them that he understands the impact of the state’s second-largest industry. He talked about growing up in a rural part of Florida, with his first job being selling food and supplies to those floating down a state river in a state park.
He also said that in his almost two years in Arkansas he has “earned my Arkansas stripes” by traveling around the state learning about not only the economy but what the state has to offer with respect to tourism. He has been in 68 of the state’s 75 counties and will soon visit the remainder.
“As soon as the legislative session (91st General Assembly) is over, I have seven other counties (to visit),” Preston said.
He also noted Monday’s news that Arkansas’ jobless rate again hit an historic low of 3.8% in January, saying the number of people employed in the state is “momentum” that can also be used to “leverage” growth in the tourism sector.
Indeed, Arkansas’ jobless rate in January matched an all-time low of 3.8% first touched in May and June 2016 as the number of unemployed workers declined by more than 2,000 entering the new year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released Monday.
Preston said part of that leverage could be as people visit the state’s tourism assets, they decide to live in the state.
“Not only do we have the lowest unemployment, but we have more people working in Arkansas right now. That’s heading in the right direction,” Preston said, adding later: “What we need now is more people moving into our state … to increase that labor shed.”
To that point, Preston said quality of life improvements in the state are critical for development success in recruiting and retaining jobs and in boosting the state’s tourism industry. The amenities that convince someone to vacation in the state may also be what convinces a person to move to the state or a business owner to move a business to the state, he said.
Preston said there broadly are “three buckets” from which new jobs emerge. The first is in the “competitive” bucket, which requires Arkansas officials to compete with other states to land a new operation and the jobs that come with it. Another bucket is “organic” growth in which existing businesses grow, or companies that supply existing businesses move to the state or expand.
“Facilitative growth” is the third bucket, and it includes economic sectors that are established but in which the state can facilitate growth through regulations, tax policies and other measures. In addition to tourism, the agri sector is also in the facilitative bucket, Preston said. With agri and tourism being the number 1 and 2 largest Arkansas economic sectors, respectively, it is important that state and local officials are supportive and always mindful that tourism development is economic development.
He also reminded the largely non-Millennial crowd that state and local tourism and economic development officials must become aware of how this large and financially lucrative demographic makes life and work decisions. Generations prior to the Millennial group would first look for a job and then move to where the job is located. Millennials are more likely to “do that in reverse,” Preston said, finding a place they want to live and then finding a job that allows them to live there.
“The quality of life is more important to them than the work life. … We have to make sure our communities are a place where that new generation wants to go,” he said.
He later added that tourism officials can help his efforts by “giving us more ammunition. … Give us more stories to tell that make Arkansas unique.”
Preston also said they are focused on boosting tourism from international visitors. Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, is scheduled to travel with Gov. Hutchinson and Preston on the next trade trip to China. Preston said the Chinese often travel to east and west coast destinations, and it’s up to Arkansas officials to convince them to visit the nation’s interior. He said most foreign visitors are uncertain about traveling to Arkansas, “but when they come here, they fall in love with it.”