Researchers unveil strategy for state economy’s post-pandemic rebound, expansion

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 958 views 

Dickson Street is an important economic driver of Fayetteville and home to unique boutiques, galleries, bars and restaurants.

Bentonville think tank Heartland Forward released a report Wednesday (July 7) that offers guidance to Arkansas policymakers seeking to strengthen the state’s economic rebound and growth as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force commissioned the study, called the Arkansas Economic Recovery Strategy. For a PDF of the 77-page study, click here.

According to a news release, Heartland Forward analyzed comprehensive data across six critical economic areas for the report:

  • Talent and workforce
  • Innovation and research
  • Entrepreneurship and small business
  • Healthcare
  • Supply chain resilience
  • High-speed internet

Researchers say the strategy isn’t intended to be a detailed economic development blueprint or replace existing plans. However, it can build upon those and guide how Arkansas can adapt and capitalize on opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Arkansas’ natural beauty, economic resilience, and robust workforce are the keys to dynamic economic growth,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “A custom-made strategy such as this that considers the needs of all regions of the state is essential as we move out of the pandemic and return to the booming economy we were building before COVID-19.”

Heartland Forward researchers said the state’s high rate of chronic health conditions, and in some cases, the urban-rural digital divide exacerbated the pandemic’s impact. According to the report, in some Arkansas counties, more than 35 percent of households have no access to the internet — an essential element of working and learning from home.

The researchers said the state has yet to reach its economic potential. Despite this, the report found that Arkansas boasts various qualities, including affordable housing, family-friendly communities and natural amenities. Arkansas ranks second in the nation for the share of its workforce in skilled trades. It touts large companies such as Tyson Foods, the University of Arkansas System, Murphy USA, Windstream, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Walmart, ArcBest and Dillard’s.

“Suffice it to say, like the rest of the nation, it has been a challenging year for the state of Arkansas. Just as the impact of the pandemic has varied by state, approaches to economic recovery should as well — this is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” said Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward. “We’re inspired to share this strategy for the recovery of our home state and honored that Governor Hutchinson’s Task Force is bringing these important findings to the table.”

The report outlines specific recommendations for Arkansas policymakers, including expanding workforce apprenticeship programs, building upon remote incentive programs such as the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Life Works Here initiative, maintaining reimbursement parity for telemedicine for rural residents, and deploying digital divide initiatives like Heartland Forward’s Connectivity Corps. The report said Arkansas could equip itself to tap into the national knowledge-based economy and attract dynamic talent with targeted action.

“The strategy outlined by Heartland Forward is aspirational and embodies just the type of big thinking that our state needs right now,” Steuart Walton, chair of the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, said in a statement. “Stakeholders from every corner of this state helped inform this report, and it will take that same approach to make these big ideas become a reality. I am honored to have been a part of this work and proud to be an Arkansan.”

Heartland Forward is delivering its strategy proposal to the Economic Recovery Task Force at a critical time as Governor Hutchinson steps into his role as Chair of the National Governors Association. Policymakers across all 50 states are searching for a blueprint for recovery. The proposed strategy positions Arkansas to demonstrate what states can accomplish with a nuanced approach such as Heartland Forward has prepared.