Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on Monday (March 26) unveiled a new initiative designed to aid local communities to recruit and successfully compete for new job prospects and economic development dollars.
Hutchinson and AEDC Director Mike Preston launched the newly created “Competitive Communities Initiatives” as mayors, county, municipal and local economic development officials from across the state gathered at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock.
In announcing the new program, Hutchinson said the statewide initiative will prove to be “a defining difference” in Arkansas’ future economic development efforts.
“That’s how excited I am about it and how important I believe that it is,” said the state’s chief job recruiter.
Under the new initiative, AEDC designed an evaluation process that identifies ways local communities can be more competitive, specifically in the areas of economic development organization, local investment and funding, workforce readiness, and “product-ready” sites, workforce and infrastructure.
Over the last year, AEDC completed an agency-wide tactical plan with input from local communities, state selection consultants and utility partners. Out of those discussions, the cities of Hope, Helena-West Helena, Newport and Van Buren all participated in a pilot program before the initiative was unveiled Monday.
“This is a robust program that was carefully created to make the most of the assets we have in each of our communities,” Preston told the roomful of more than 150 economic developers.
Once local economic developers complete the program, then that city or municipality will receive the “Competitive Community” designation to market to outside industry and job prospects. Hutchinson and Preston said the community checklist will help the state match each community’s strengths and weaknesses with job prospects that are looking to locate in Arkansas.
“How can you document and verify that you have the training and capacity to meet the needs of the industry that you are recruiting?” Hutchinson asked rhetorically. “We are willing to work on faith, but some industrials prospects would like to have more.”
Hutchinson did admit during his brief speech that Arkansas has lost major job prospects because of the lack of “shovel-ready” industrial sites and workforce readiness weaknesses. In particular, the globe-trotting Republican governor noted that Arkansas failed to land the $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda plant because of the failure to check-off these key issues.
“We can go through a list of those that we missed out on or that another state won. And we learned from those as Mike (Preston) indicated. And why did we not win them? Because they were looking for a turn-key site with ready infrastructure,” Hutchinson said. “This has been publicly discussed when Toyota-Mazda wanted to have a large project. They looked at multiple states but they were in a hurry. They needed a ready-made site and they went to Alabama that had everything that was already (there),”
In October, AEDC officials confirmed to Talk Business & Politics that Arkansas was out of the running for the Toyota-Mazda plant that is expected to employ more than 4,000 workers by 2021. Arkansas officials originally submitted a proposal for the Japanese automakers that included “superproject” sites in Crittenden County near Memphis and a 2,054-acre location in Saline County in central Arkansas.
“We have to demonstrate that we can hire 1,000 people or 500 people,” Hutchinson said. “The bottom line is that we cannot recruit industry to this state if our product is not ready for sale.”
According to AEDC officials, Arkansas has signed 338 incentive agreements to locate new business or expand existing operations in the state with a projected investment of $7.87 billion and 13,048 new jobs. AEDC spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle said the new statewide initiative is modeled after some parts of the former Community of Excellence program under former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s economic development team.
“It had some similarities, from what I understand. (This) program was created based on more current input from site selectors and results from the overall agency strategic plan to compete for business against other states and globally,” said Hinkle.