Had there been any doubt among our delegation about the primary engines powering Northwest Arkansas’ strong economy, a stop in Springdale on our way to Tulsa about 15 years ago would have erased it.
The Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce called the road trip a “familiarization tour,” and the several dozen of us aboard heard presentations from several Arkansas communities between here and Tulsa regarding their approaches to economic development.
In Springdale, we took a long look at the Northwest Arkansas Council, formed in 1990 to facilitate economic development throughout that region. It is said to have had its genesis when Walmart founder Sam Walton made a call to banker friend John Lewis saying that local government and businesses needed to work together for the benefit of the area.
The invitation list for the initial meetings read like a Northwest Arkansas Who’s Who. In addition to Walton and Lewis, John Tyson, the leader of Tyson Foods during the decades when the company rose to the top of the poultry business, and J.B. Hunt, founder of the transportation company that started with five trucks and now has more than 12,000, were among those in attendance.
The council, we were told at the briefing, would identify needs and options, and then in the words of one speaker, “We would run it by Don, J.B. and (lowering his voice to a whisper) Mr. Sam. If Don, J.B. and (again the reverent whisper) Mr. Sam, thought it was a good idea,” then the project would proceed.
Obviously, in our corner of the state we don’t have Don, J.B. and Mr. Sam, nor are we likely to have them in the future. But we must recall that Winthrop Rockefeller, when he came to Arkansas in 1953, admonished us to stop thinking about what we don’t have but instead to focus on what we do have and use it to help ourselves.
Jonesboro, the largest city in the region, enjoys a well-balanced economy that encompasses a number of sectors – agriculture, health care, banking, general manufacturing and value-added food processing among them. Mark Young, CEO of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, says that while no one economy can be recession-proof, Jonesboro’s is recession-resistant.
Nearby Paragould may be the fastest-growing city in Arkansas. Arkansas State University is itself a giant driver of the economy and assists others in their business pursuits.
We have much more in Northeast Arkansas, but I offer — mostly because the Northwest Arkansas Council had its big three — a trio of widely recognized names that have significance in terms of current and potential economic development for this side of the state. They are, Papa, J.R. and The Ol’ Man.
• Ernest Hemingway (Papa), wrote portions of “A Farewell to Arms” in a barn at Piggott belonging to the family of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. The Hemingway-Peiffer Museum and Educational Center, developed and operated by the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites draws writers, Hemingway scholars and tourists from virtually everywhere.
• He was J.R. when he lived at New Deal resettlement experiment Dyess Colony. The man who became country music icon Johnny Cash still draws thousands of visitors to Northeast Arkansas, nearly 15 years after his death. ASU Heritage Sites has restored portions of the Colony headquarters and Cash’s boyhood home in the cotton field where a music festival celebrating the area’s musical heritage is staged.
• And then the Ol’ Man. Consider the Mississippi River the economic highway that connects us with the world. It’s no accident the state’s burgeoning steel industry is centered along Ol’ Man River’s west bank. The growth in that industry is nothing short of phenomenal. Mississippi is the fourth-largest steel-producing county in the nation.
Of course, we still have work to do, even in the relatively prosperous places in the Delta. Median incomes still lag behind national and state averages. In some Delta counties, unemployment rates are significantly above the state and national averages. So, what do we do about it?
Jonesboro Unlimited has undertaken an effort to bring higher-wage jobs to the community, targeting five key areas. Essential to retaining and attracting young professional workers is giving them the quality of life they desire. JU’s Chris Barber said bike trails, arts and culture, and other quality of life elements will have to be improved. Young professionals want their community to be walkable as well, says businessman Ted Herget.
Coffee shops and bike paths are all fine for Jonesboro and the other more prosperous communities of the Delta, but one may ask, what about the flatland farming communities? They are struggling just to hold on despite being located on some of the world’s most fertile soil.
Economic developer Kay Brockwell says the answer may be to “dance with who brought you” — that is agriculture. But she says it likely won’t be the ag industry your farmer grandfather danced with. With an increasing interest in organic foods and farm-to-table agriculture it may be time to consider a switch from row crops where prices — supply and demand — are dependent on world conditions.
That idea brings its own set of questions for policymakers. Would such endeavors be considered “new industries” by economic developers? If so, could or should the usual incentives be offered? Who would pay for the infrastructure needed to facilitate this industrial growth? While we’re creating higher-paying jobs in one part of the region, we have to create new kinds of jobs in the less-prosperous areas.
We should do what Gov. Rockefeller told us and think about what we do have.
Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for the Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.