In April 2006, then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers, convened a meeting with then-University of Arkansas Chancellor John White to share his vision about establishing a World Trade Center that would be connected to the university but serve trade interests around the state.
“It might have been your dream John, but it was my nightmare,” joked White during a 10-year anniversary event held Thursday (Sept. 21) at the Arkansas World Trade Center (WTC) offices in Rogers.
White explained he bought into Boozman’s vision hook, line and sinker but knew it would take a team of people, funding and considerable advocacy to pull it off.
Boozman, now Arkansas’ senior U.S. Senator, told Talk Business & Politics he got the idea for the World Trade Center from one of his colleagues in Congress — Denny Rehberg of Montana — who had pulled off a similar feat in that state with help from the University of Montana.
“I liked the idea of a university being directly linked to the World Trade Center which can furnish industry research as one of the services we can now export,” Boozman added.
He said events like the WTC anniversary are a great example of the ongoing work the organization does daily to facilitate trade for Arkansas businesses. He said the anniversary celebration is a good example of how the WTC operates, as there were a number of consulate representatives and ambassadors meeting with local business leadership. Making those connections are the origins of what could be trade relations in the future.
“In Arkansas, 40% of our agriculture is exported and expanding our export markets has never been more important,” Boozman said.
When asked about modernization efforts underway of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Boozman said the agreement has been good for Arkansas, but it’s okay to review the terms because the U.S. wants free trade and fair trade.
“At the end of the day, I believe we will strike a deal that improves this agreement for U.S. and Arkansas businesses,” he said.
Dan Hendrix, CEO of the WTC, said it took much effort from some key influential business and civic leaders to breathe life into Boozman’s vision.
“We had no money to start with but the Walton [Family Charitable Support] Foundation donated $1.7 million in seed money and the University of Arkansas agreed to provide some longer term funding,” Hendrix said.
He said the late J.B. Hunt and his business partners at that time offered up to 6,000 square feet on the fourth floor at Pinnacle Hills.
“They provided a 50-year rent-free lease and they finished out the space for us. This gift was instrumental,” he said.
Hendrix also thanked the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for funding the $200,000 it took for the WTC to join the national organization. He said the funding was passed through the city of Rogers, who then forwarded it to the WTC. The Rogers mayor at the time was Steve Womack, who is now the U.S. Representative for Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District, the seat held by Boozman in 2006. Hendrix said it’s amazing that a state like Arkansas has a WTC tied to its flagship university and is entrenched in trade expansion on behalf of Arkansas businesses.
There are 340 Trade Centers located in more than 100 countries and in the past ten years the local organization has hosted some 60 ambassadors and trade consulates and country presidents. Hendrix said there have been many successes of the WTC in the past decade but one that really stood out was taking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to Cuba two years ago.
“Our governor was the first in this nation to visit Cuba and meet with our re-established embassy there and that was a big milestone,” Hendrix said.
In his remarks, Boozman said the WTC is an example of how an idea becomes a vision and then “dedicated and committed” people “turn it into an actuality.”
Robinson Njeru Githae, ambassador to the United States from Kenya, spoke with Talk Business & Politics about his first trip to Arkansas at Thursday’s event. Having arrived late Wednesday, Njeru Githae said he had met with agricultural rice experts from the University of Arkansas on Thursday and he hopes to set up some type of exchange program between the two countries for university students to study in each other’s countries. He said Kenya is a very arid country and UA researchers have considerable expertise to share about growing rice in a dry climate.
He was also particularly interested in learning how to raise the value of Kenya’s rice crop by making more products higher up the value chain such as rice, flour and rice cakes.
“Right now, we just make rice and we are leaving a lot of money on the ground,” Njeru Githae said.
He said Kenyan coffee is also a very high quality and he would like to see trade opportunities there. The ambassador will be in town until Saturday and said he has meetings Friday to learn more about the business incubators available at the University of Arkansas.
Ambassador Roman Macya Hayes, who represents Costa Rica, was also present at the anniversary event. Hayes told Talk Business & Politics this was also his first trip to Arkansas since being sworn into his office in 2014. He came only for the event at an invitation from Boozman and will be flying out Friday. Hayes said he’s making plans to return to the state since meeting the local staff, and he’s interested in expanding trade opportunities with Arkansas.