The Northwest Arkansas Council for the first time held its annual meeting Wednesday (July 22) via Zoom, with presiding co-chair Todd Simmons saying he hopes it will be the last time a virtual meeting is required.
Simmons, CEO of Simmons Foods, spoke about social injustices that have gripped this nation in recent weeks and the ongoing COVID-19 health pandemic. He said until systemic racism is stamped out in this nation the work will not be complete. He asked the membership to support the Council’s pledge for diversity and inclusion. Simmons said many of the members signed on and accepted the pledge within minutes of it going public. He said the Council will continue to focus on racial equity as part of its efforts to grow and improve the quality of life within the region for everyone.
Simmons also announced Susan Barrett, retired CEO of Mercy Hospital, as the sixth honorary lifetime member of the Council. She joins an esteemed list with President Bill Clinton, Alice Walton and John Paul Hammerschmidt, Uvalde Lindsey and Scott Van Laningham. Barrett was chosen because of her many years of service to the Council as a hospital administrator and most recently after retirement heading up the Council’s work to make Northwest Arkansas a healthcare destination by 2040.
Simmons said as COVID-19 gripped the region in mid-March, Barrett was front and center working with the Council to ensure hospital needs were met and businesses and households had access to the information they needed to stay safe.
“Health care leaders in our region and those of us who work for the Council have such high regard for Susan because she understands the issues, knows the players and has the confidence and respect of everyone who works with her,” said Council CEO Nelson Peacock.
Barrett said the honorary designation was a “heart-touching” honor.
“I have always considered it a great privilege to be a member of the NWA Council and to work side by side with people who are stretching themselves to accomplish things much higher than just their own self-interest. That is how I have always viewed the purpose of the NWA Council. The people of NWA have given me so much, both professionally and personally. I am humbled and grateful for this lifetime membership gift,” Barrett said in an email to Talk Business & Politics.
TAX SUPPORT, NEW ‘CACHE’
Peacock said 2020 has been like no other year, but work from the Council and its members continues. Rather than reviewing the 36-page report which can be downloaded, Peacock discussed the 1/2-cent-sales tax extension that will be on the November ballot as Issue 1. He said the Council is working to ensure it is passed because without it the region will fall further behind in infrastructure development.
The original tax passed in 2012 paid for $370 million in projects in Northwest Arkansas, namely the I-49 expansion to 6 lanes, new highway connector to Northwest Arkansas Airport and the Bella Vista bypass into Missouri, which is still under construction.
Peacock said the statewide impact if the tax is extended would mean Arkansas cities and counties cumulatively receive $90 million a year, with $8 million to 32 cities in Northwest Arkansas by 2024. He said Benton and Washington counties would each receive $3.5 million over that period.
Also announced at the meeting was the new name for the regional arts service organization headed up by Allyson Esposito. She said the new name is CACHE – which stands for Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange. This pillar of the Council was announced last year as a way to use art and culture to bridge gaps in the region, grow business and the economy while also enriching quality of life.
Esposito, executive director for the newly-named CACHE, said the group is working to bring more cohesiveness among the arts community within and outside the region. Esposito has been at her post for about a year and has expanded the staff with seven hires. She said the staff is working to elevate the region to a recognized hub for creativity at all scales and to co-create growth and success conditions for a rich diversity of artists, cultural businesses and nonprofits.
She said CACHE is assessing the arts infrastructure and engaging with regional artists. With help from the Walton Family Foundation, CACHE was also able to give several grants to small and mid-size organizations and artists to further their work, she said. Esposito invited the business leaders to find ways to collaborate with the arts community saying CACHE is eager to work with the business community on arts strategies that can help companies attract and retain talent.
The last order of business at the meeting was for presiding co-chair Simmons to pass the gavel, which he did virtually, to Karen Roberts, executive vice president and general counsel at Walmart. Roberts became the 15th person to chair the Council since its inception. Roberts is a graduate of Harding University and earned her law degree at the University of Arkansas. For the past 15 years that she has been with Walmart, and now works as general counsel and oversees the legal department which is responsible for handling all legal matters affecting the company in its domestic and international markets. She will serve as the presiding co-chair for Council until July 2021.