New Van Buren Chamber head: Most growth ‘comes from within’

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 677 views 

The Van Buren Chamber of Commerce’s new leader is a familiar face to the western Arkansas business community. Terry Carson accepted the job as Chamber president on March 15 after 44 years in the banking and finance industry.

Most of his career was spent in Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, and Sebastian counties, making for a smoother transition following his January retirement from Generations Bank.

Carson follows former Chamber President Jackie Krutsch, who was hired by the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) approximately two years ago. Carson said he’s agreed to fill the post for “up to three years,” but is operating on a one-year contract. While closing out the planning on his first annual meeting and business expo — taking place Thursday (May 31) — he discussed his plans for the year ahead.

The emphasis, Carson said, would be on economic development and growing the Chamber’s membership. Since his first day on the job, the organization has added 14 members, elevating membership to 435. He feels 500 will be attainable “by the end of the year.” In growing the base, Carson is looking to existing businesses, an approach that mirrors the reality of how cities grow, he said, noting that 80% of a region’s growth “comes from within” in the guise of existing businesses that expand operations.

“Growth usually doesn’t happen from an outside corporation coming in. I know everyone talks about getting one of the big car plants, but those happen infrequently. We would be much improved if we had smaller job growth over a period of time that builds up to a larger number,” Carson said.

On that note, the city will participate in a business retention and expansion (BR&E) grant with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD) “hopefully this year,” he said.

Carson also believes Van Buren should be open and in search of new business activity. To that issue, he pointed to his and city leaders’ involvement in the Competitive Communities Initiative (CCI) program through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). The program provides cities with a number of benefits, including inclusion in more request for information (RFI) submissions. Carson called it “more of a fast track” to being able to show properties.

Aside from his own plans, Carson championed recent downtown developments, particularly the growing restaurant base. He credited groups like The Old Town Merchants Association (TOTMA), Van Buren A&P Commission, and Van Buren Original (VBO) for the last two years of revitalization efforts.

“The Chamber agenda is economic development, and we’re active with these other associations. But we’re citywide, promoting businesses everywhere we can. They’ve helped generate a lot of activity downtown in Van Buren.”

Some of the activities include new restaurants like Larry B’s Rhythm Room featuring Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken and Waffles and The Vault 1905 Sports Grill at 624 Main St., which will be located in the former Citizens Bank & Trust Co. building. There’s also the operational Deb & Rick’s Trolley Stop BBQ Restaurant and Boomerang’s as well as Crazy Cajun-Mex, which plans to open in July at the latest.

In addition to existing growth, Carson believes the city needs to look outside of itself and remain involved in regional alliances with other cities, big and small. He credited the changes in Fort Smith’s downtown as well as the ACHE at Chaffee Crossing for helping Fort Smith “grow into the 21st Century over the last few years,” and said that for Van Buren and smaller cities, “it’s up to the rest of us to keep improving our cities” for the region to grow.

Thursday’s annual meeting will be the Van Buren Chamber’s 63rd. A business expo will follow. Bekaert Corporation and Methodist Village Senior Living are event sponsors, which will highlight achievements of 2017 and preview upcoming projects at the Chamber and across Van Buren.

Start time is 5 p.m. from Van Buren High School. Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, is the keynote speaker.