At NEA regional forum, leaders discuss growth strategies, airport study

by George Jared ([email protected]) 794 views 

(Photo courtesy of Ritter Communications) Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Young, and TB&P's Roby Brock.

Housing, retail sector growth, quality of life, commercial air service, workforce development and retention are among the issues civic and business leaders in Northeast Arkansas have identified as issues that will have to be tackled in the coming years.

Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Young were among the speakers at the first annual ‘Better Communities’ town hall held Wednesday (May 18) at the Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro.

Talk Business & Politics, in partnership with First Security Bank, the Arkansas Department of Commerce and the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce, hosted the town hall that was attended by more than 100 civic and business leaders from throughout the region.

Preston told the crowd that Northeast Arkansas is typically an “easy sell” when companies explore the possibility of locating in the region, but there are issues that need to be addressed. The lack of housing is a top issue along with the development of a regional airport that could support commercial travel. Preston revealed that a study is underway to determine the best course of action to develop a regional airport and he expects it to be complete by the end of this year.

“We need to make sure we have adequate air service. It’s been an impediment,” Preston said, noting that corporate travelers want to be able to easily access their investments in the region.

Northeast Arkansas has experienced rapid and explosive economic growth in recent years and when Jonesboro Unlimited, a regional economic development organization, set a goal to create 2,500 high paying jobs in 2016, Young said he expected it to take five years. He was shocked when it took half as long.

“A lot of people around the state are envious of what you have in this community,” Preston said.

Young said it’s rare for a company to get to the final decision about locating in Jonesboro and not choose NEA’s hub city. It has happened on occasion, and Young said he and his team always ask those companies why they went elsewhere. The number one issue is typically geography, he said. Production of certain products sometimes makes more sense from a logistics standpoint to be produced at another location, he added.

Arkansas State University, the local school system, affordable utilities, and availability of land are among the reasons why companies want to locate in Jonesboro, Preston said. In addition to airport access and housing shortages, access to broadband is another issue, but it’s one that impacts many parts of the state.

Some companies also worry about the fact that eastern Arkansas sits in the vast Mississippi River floodplain. Preston is always quick to note that many companies still locate here because facility sites are developed to rise above possible flood levels.

Another panel of speakers – Chris Barber, St. Bernards Healthcare CEO; Christy Valentine, Hytrol Manager of Academic Partnerships; and Dr. Len Frey, A-State Executive Vice Chancellor Finance, Administration & COO – talked about the quality of life metrics that need to be improved to attract and retain young professional workers.

Barber said there has been a push to develop bicycle and pedestrian trails. A new 2% local tourism tax passed last year will fund a new multi-sport complex. These improvements will be vital in professional worker retention, he added.

“We have got to truly embrace quality of place. We have room to grow,” Valentine said.

Another advantage the region has is ASU and the healthcare system centered in Jonesboro, Frey said. When asked what are the challenges when recruiting staff to ASU, he said a lagging ethnic diversity in the community and the limited number of professionals are issues they have to address.

When asked the same question about luring physicians to the area, Barber said there are a few things that need to be improved. Damage caused by the 2020 tornado still needs to be cleaned up and rising crime rates, an issue that is married to overall population and economic growth, has to be dealt with. Barber said that Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver is taking steps to correct those problems.

Retail sector growth has stagnated in the city since the mall was hit by the tornado in March 2020. Valentine said that big box retail will always be an important component but it’s the smaller mom and pop boutiques that define a community and make it grow economically. Whatever can be done to improve this sector’s growth needs to be done – now.

“It’s not time to talk. It’s time to do,” she said.