Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday (Jan. 2) named businessman and political activist Keith Gibson to the Arkansas Highway Commission. He replaces Dick Trammel of Rogers whose 10-year term expires Jan. 14.
Gibson is president and chairman of the board of Pinnacle Communications and Pinnacle Telecom in Fort Smith. Pinnacle Telecom serves Western and Northwest Arkansas and sections of Eastern Oklahoma and has built a state of the art fiber optic network in those areas, according to the Pinnacle Telecom website. It had $4.292 million in Arkansas revenue in 2017, with just under 5,000 customers, according to an annual report filed with the Arkansas Public Service Commission in April 2018.
Gibson also served as a GOP delegate to the Electoral College for Arkansas and as a member of Hutchinson’s campaign finance committee. He served as president of both the Arkansas Telephone Association and the Oklahoma Telephone Association; he was an organizing member, stockholder, and board member of Benefit Bank in Fort Smith; and he has served on boards of various civic, charitable and political organizations. Gibson was appointed to serve as justice of the peace for Sebastian County from 1999-2000 and to the Criminal Detention Review Committee from 2006-2008.
“I have known Keith for many years, and I have been impressed with his understanding of Arkansas’ economy and his passion to continue developing it,” Hutchinson said at the Fort Smith press conference. “These are essential qualities for a state highway commissioner, which is why I am confident that Keith will do an excellent job in this new role.”
Gibson will serve as the newest of the five-member Highway Commission, one of the most influential and powerful panels in state government. The commission oversees annual spending for the state’s roads, bridges and infrastructure. From 2015-2017, the commission oversaw nearly $2.4 billion in construction spending, according to its annual reports.
“It’s the most important of all of the state commissions,” Hutchinson said. “There is probably never been a more important time, more critical time in our state’s highways than right now to have the right commissioners, the right leadership as we go into the future because highways and infrastructure is becoming increasingly important.”
State lawmakers and the governor are expected to spend considerable time in the upcoming legislative session that starts on Jan. 14 discussing a new highway funding program. Hutchinson said that Gibson would be a leader in helping shape that plan.
“We need to have new ideas and leadership that keep up with the national best practices and also the needs of the citizens of all of our state,” the governor added.
Gibson said he was ready to get started, but he definitely wants to study more on the issues at hand.
“I’ve got a learning curve. I guess my number one priority is to get through that learning curve, to listen and learn from the other commissioners,” he said.
The last full-term highway commissioner from the Fort Smith region was Jake Patterson, appointed in the Rockefeller administration in 1969.
Hutchinson said repeatedly while campaigning for reelection in 2018 that the next highway commissioner would come from “south of the mountain” and from the (Arkansas) River valley, noting that a commissioner from the Fort Smith area was very important to the region even though he would be responsible for meeting the needs of the entire state.
State Senator Mat Pitsch of Fort Smith said the appointment of a commissioner from Fort Smith was “huge.”
“When you have five guys in a room determining where you are going to build the biggest economic driver we have, which is new roads, new transportation, and now one of those five men is from our hometown, that’s huge. We’ve worked the last four years to make this happen,” Pitsch said, noting that he hopes the appointment could push development of I-49 and all transportation, including rail, river and roads, in the area.
I-49, the north-south corridor that originates in Lafayette, Louisiana, runs through the western flank of Arkansas, and stretches north to Kansas City, Missouri has been a major funding challenge for the Fort Smith region. The southern stretch of the Arkansas portion of the interstate has come up short in funding for decades. Recently, the northwest Arkansas portion of the road known as the Bella Vista Bypass received funding to complete.
Gibson’s appointment will raise expectations for the southern stretch of I-49. He was cautious in his comments on the issue at Wednesday’s press conference.
“It is certainly something I want to look at closely. I look forward to learning more specifics about it,” he said. “I know it’s critically important to a lot of people in this area, so that is something I want to look at closely.”
Tim Allen, Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, said Gibson’s appointment will create new opportunities for the region.
“Governor Hutchinson’s appointment of Keith Gibson to the Arkansas Highway Commission is further endorsement that Fort Smith and western Arkansas are indeed open for business, and that the state is watching. The region is primed for high-powered growth with the transportation infrastructure we already have in place and the potential development being discussed,” Allen said. “The Fort Smith region plays a crucial role in advanced manufacturing logistics and having Keith’s voice in discussions regarding highway progress will set the stage for additional economic expansion.”