Ross DeVol discusses findings of ‘heartland’ research

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 539 views 

Ross DeVol, left, a fellow at the Walton Family Foundation, and Paul Gatling, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Ross DeVol moved his family from Southern California to Bentonville last year, a prospect he said would not have been as appealing a decade ago.

“It would have been a much more difficult sell,” he said in a recent interview.

A growing economy, job opportunities and amenities that add to quality of life, though, have all positioned Northwest Arkansas as more attractive to people relocating to the area.

DeVol, who spent 20 years as the chief research officer for the economic think tank Milken Institute in California, began a one-year tenure last October as a fellow working for the Walton Family Foundation (WFF), the Bentonville-based philanthropic organization started 30 years ago by Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton.

In a recent interview with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal editor Paul Gatling in Springdale, DeVol discussed his research highlighting economic trends that are having a positive impact on areas of America’s heartland. A video of DeVol’s full interview is available at our sister website, talkbusiness.net.

Paul Gatling: Your research [with the WFF] has produced three publications, all focusing on economic trends/policies that are impacting the heartland of the country. How are you defining that? What or where is the American heartland? What shapes it?

Ross DeVol: There’s different opinions on what makes up the heartland. Some think it’s just the Midwest. In recent years, it has been meant to mean more the center of the country. Essentially, the [research] focus is on the center of the country and what can we do to improve economic performance here. There are a number of places doing well. Northwest Arkansas has done very well. But what can we do to increase the value-added activity in this part of the country?

Gatling: What is your research telling you, and why is it important to Arkansas and the heartland as a whole?

DeVol: It’s important to the heartland because when you look at per capita incomes, they have narrowed relative to other parts of the country. But there still is this gap. It’s not as wide here in Northwest Arkansas than in many what we call micropolitan areas that have population between 10,000 and 50,000 people.

What I wanted to do initially was look at some success stories within the heartland. We identified five in particular, and then tried to identify what were commonalities. Clearly, what you see are places that understand entrepreneurship is important. Creating new companies that can lead to midsize companies where job creation really occurs is absolutely essential. Those communities that understand that have done best overall.

Gatling: Does Northwest Arkansas understand that? Does it share those characteristics?

DeVol: I think where the opportunity lies in Northwest Arkansas, if you talk to the business community here, they would like to see greater interaction with the University of Arkansas in terms of sponsoring research that might be directly applicable to them. Also, seeing more companies that are spun out of the university.

[Also,] research that is licensed locally that can result in new startup companies. It’s kind of a technology-based — or some might call it the knowledge-based — economy where Northwest Arkansas still has more opportunities. There’s been tremendous growth when you look at jobs, income population, how ever you want to view it. But there are clearly economic opportunities to broaden that economic performance.

Gatling: What is the next step for this research? What do you do with it? How will you leverage it in both the public sector and the private sector?

DeVol: Given that I work at the Walton Family Foundation, I have been advocating some potential ideas for investment. And it’s not just about dollars. In the end that certainly plays a role, but trying to get political leadership to understand how important the flagship university is and how it can be a generator of jobs for residents of the entire state. Not just in the post-Ph.D. world, but also in other companies.

You get a lot of spinoffs that generate a multiplier effect in the local economy and help diversify. That’s really what you are trying to do. Northwest Arkansas is very fortunate that it has these leading Fortune 500 companies, but it needs to be creating more members of the ecosystem so you get a greater mix. People can switch jobs between companies, start new companies. That is the next element that is necessary.

Gatling: Is part of that strategy increasing the UA’s profile as a research institution?

DeVol: That is absolutely right, and I have a number of ideas there that I have shared with others and spoken about. One of them is, you have someone who is a representative from Northwest Arkansas that chairs the budget committee. (Note: U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, chairs the House Budget Committee.) Not that you would influence where funds get allocated, but people at the National Institutes of Health [and the] National Science Foundation, who give out these federal grants … it’s important to educate them on the assets that Northwest Arkansas has and on the university.

And you are starting to see some of that. The university has gotten several prominent grants in recent months. And I think there is a growing recognition with the new leadership and Chancellor [Joseph] Steinmetz, that the university has a greater role, and it should be part of its mission to be involved in starting new companies and working more closely with the private business sector. I think there is going to be a number of new initiatives that are going to be started very soon.

Gatling: You have lived in Northwest Arkansas for nearly a year now. What’s your take on this area as it relates to strengths and weaknesses?

DeVol: Well, in terms of being a really Fortune 500 driven area, that has bestowed great economic benefits on the region. I think the next step is more technology-based economic development. Whether that is data analytics in the retail/logistics chain, there are a lot of opportunities there. [Also,] relying upon more of the research strengths at the university. Biomedical is an important academic area of strength. Medical devices, there are a number of smaller companies that started here. It’s not really on the radar screen yet, but I think with further funding, that is entirely possible.

Gatling: Your term as a fellow was for one year, which started this past October. What are your plans after your year is up with the foundation? Are you still going to be a familiar face here in an as-yet-undefined role?

DeVol: I think there is a high probability of that. There’s going to be an event called the Heartland Summit that members of the Walton family are heading up. It’s going to be in Bentonville in mid-October, and I am very hopeful that at that event there’s going to be an announcement of a new organization that looks at the heartland economy.

Not only from a research perspective, which I have done throughout my career, but I’ve also prided myself on the “do” part — getting people to implement your research and ideas.

It could very well be that a center will be focused on Arkansas, but more broadly in the heartland of the area of the country. There really isn’t a “think” and “do” tank economic research organization that looks at the center of the country as if it were a country, in many respects. So that is one of the things that I have found really exciting about this opportunity.

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