Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston is juggling a lot these days: unemployment insurance, broadband expansion, a spate of bills at the legislature, and efforts to keep economic development projects funneling in the state.
Preston gave a wide-ranging interview with Talk Business & Politics last week. He was at the state capitol on Thursday to speak against a bill by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, that would prohibit Arkansas from having an economic development office in China. The state closed its office last summer, but keeps a U.S.-based consultant on contract for Asian representation. The bill failed in the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Preston said he understands Garner’s concerns.
“Do we need to be doing business with the Communist Party of China? You know, we’re looking beyond that. Our contract is again, with a U.S. citizen, who has ties in China, so this is about opening doors and building relationships and making it easier to do trade,” he said.
“You know, I’m not ignorant to sit up here and say that. I realize that China’s a Communist country, and in order to do trade in China and business in China, a lot of it runs through the party because the Communist party controls a lot of the business interests over there,” Preston said. “When you do business with Chinese companies, it’s inevitable that the Communist party is going to be involved in some shape or manner. By no means do we want to just give money to Communist China, but we are going to be doing trade with China.”
China is the biggest consumer nation on the planet. Walmart and Tyson Foods have major operations in China, and Arkansas agriculture – despite recent tariff wars – is still a major importer of soybeans and other goods to China.
Arkansas has recruited a handful of Chinese-owned manufacturing companies to the state with mixed results. Preston said the Biden administration will present a new direction for U.S.-China trade relations.
“If there any indications from President Biden’s time as Vice President, he’s one that I think is going to look for opportunities to continue to open trade with China,” Preston said. “If that is the case and the U.S. leans forward on trade with China, I don’t want Arkansas to be left behind. I want us to be there at the forefront to say we’re going to be a leader in trade and selling our goods, and certainly our agricultural products to the largest consumer market in the world.”
In his state of the state speech, Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on state lawmakers to put another $30 million towards broadband expansion in rural Arkansas. More than $100 million has already been invested by the state on top of a number of utility and private investors that have spent more than a billion dollars on broadband infrastructure in recent years.
Preston said the $30 million can help strategically, but more is certainly needed.
“I think $30 million kind of tees it up for the legislature to let them take it and run with it. They’ve been a great partner in this, and to date, we’ve already invested about $100 million throughout this course of the pandemic, some of that coming from funds from the governor and the legislature, but then additional funds coming through the CARES funding,” Preston said.
“I think $30 million is a starting point. What we’ve learned through all this is that we’ve got a lot more capacity that we have to build out… we still have a lot more to do,” he added.
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission recently produced a video to show the impact of rural broadband on communities for help with education, jobs and quality of life.
Beyond the broadband pipeline, the jobs pipeline is among Preston’s top priorities. He said over the last year – despite the pandemic – interest in Arkansas for economic development prospects remained strong.
“Even through the pandemic when everything was slowed down everywhere, we still outperformed and outpaced our competitors in the national average,” he said.
Preston also discussed the state of the unemployment insurance portal and bills that could impact the state’s image across the nation and globe. Watch his full interview in the video below.