In mid-May, Talk Business & Politics joined First Security Bank, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce in presenting a “better community” conversation. More than 100 attendees participated in the midday event at the Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro.
The town hall format featured a moderated discussion with Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston and Jonesboro Chamber CEO Mark Young on how Northeast Arkansas is marketed nationally.
A three-person panel that included St. Bernard’s CEO Chris Barber, Hytrol Manager of Academic Partnerships Christy Valentine, and A-State Executive Vice Chancellor Finance, Administration & COO Dr. Len Frey discussed what has to happen to build a better region from within. TB&P’s Roby Brock moderated the conversation.
Roby Brock: Chris Barber, we will start with you. What does Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas have going for it in your estimation?
Chris Barber: We have a tremendous amount going for us right now. You’ve seen that we’ve been extremely successful over the last several decades because of the diversity of our economy. You all that are familiar from our community know that about a third of jobs are manufacturing, a third of it is service sector, and about a third of it is agricultural. So we’ve been able to weather the storm when you have economic downturns in this region.
I’d say the biggest thing is the people that we have in Northeast Arkansas and the work ethic that individuals have here. We’ll talk a little bit about that in the education program here, but we’ve been able to continue to grow. I would say specifically, when you talk about Jonesboro in particular, Jonesboro Unlimited has developed an aggressive strategic plan. Not only did we have quite a bit of involvement of 1,300 individuals and business leaders in this community when the plan was developed and funded, more importantly, it was executed and being able to achieve that success and those results of growing high-quality jobs in this region and the different components of that and we can speak to that.
Christy Valentine: This region is built on something that’s magical and that’s Delta dirt. The great thing about that is there comes with that a work ethic and there’s a grit and I think we are all a product of that. I see so much potential for Jonesboro and we have so much room for growth. We are willing to embrace new ideas and willing to take things on. The other thing, the diversity of workforce that you mentioned, we have a strong manufacturing base, we have available jobs for everyone who wants to work. So if you’re fresh out of high school or fresh out of college, there’s a place for you. There’s a draw to that Delta dirt. I have a 24-year-old daughter who wants to come back, she’s ready to be home. She calls this place home and it’s home because she grew up here but it’s also home to those who just moved here a year or so ago because we as a community make you feel that way. So I think that’s a very unique position to be in and something that we can embrace and capitalize on.
Dr. Len Frey: I think part of the thing, one of the things that has made Northeast Arkansas and Jonesboro great is world class healthcare, world class education at the higher education, public schools and world class manufacturing. Each one of those entities I’ve just mentioned has a world class presence within its being. What we have to do I think in the future is figure out how to retain and attract future workers to meet the needs of the workforce, how to retain students, how to attract students and retain students to go to work in this Northeast Arkansas community.
Brock: With great success, which Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas has had, particularly lately, also comes challenges — challenges of workforce, challenges of education, challenges with amenities. You get more people in an area, you’re going to get more crime in an area. There are a lot of things that come with growth, in that respect. What needs to improve?
Frey: I think both from a community standpoint and from a university standpoint people are wanting activities, a sense of place, quality of life. These are things that I really didn’t think about 40 years ago when I moved to Jonesboro, I thought this is a great place to live as it is. And so sometimes when I’m hearing what we don’t have, I’m remembering what it used to be like. I have to step out of that mindset of, ‘Well, look how far we’ve come’ to what the strides we still need to take to make this a community that people are attracted to and a place where they want to call home for the rest of their life.
Valentine: We’ve got to truly embrace and get really aggressive about quality of place. Quality of life is fantastic here in Jonesboro. Quality of place, we’ve got some room to grow. I travel all over the state for sure and other places in the country and I see things that would be so easy, so easy and not that expensive to implement.
Brock: Give me some ideas, some examples.
Valentine: You know, honestly, it’s as simple as landscaping. Sometimes it’s just the way things look. I think we’ve got a world class institution, a world class place to work, and we’ve got overgrown bushes. That’s so simple, it makes me want to bring my clippers and do it myself. The other thing I think is we’ve got to quit talking about what we’re not. I often hear us compare to other parts of the state and rather than say, ‘Oh, they’ve got money, they’ve got this.’ Why don’t we say ‘We are, we can be, and we will be.’ And let’s take that approach. What we can be versus what we’re not. And take that little stepchild off our shoulder.
Barber: Just to build upon that, we want to be the best that we can be in our community and that’s our focus and that’s been our planning. I’d say a couple things. We got a lot of young talent here. We need folks to be engaged in the process and speak up and be involved. As we’ve talked about, we’ve got a lot of things going on. When we talk about quality of place, that’s obviously a central theme from us, as well as folks in this room. And there’s many folks here that have been an advocate for that for quite some time. We talk about bike trails, pedestrian walkways, under the mayor’s leadership. Now we have the opportunity to build a multipurpose facility, state of the art here that will attract folks here. We had the shooting range. From my perspective, I don’t think it’s just one event or one activity.
We’ve got to create multiple options for individuals to get plugged in and what we’ve found is if we can get folks to Jonesboro, they see the community, it can sell itself, what we have to offer here.
So No. 1 right now is developing that workforce pipeline. We all know that’s a challenge, whatever industry that you’re in at this point in time. We’re fortunate to have strong education at all levels. We want to continue to build that. You referenced earlier crime and I know there’s been issues being addressed with that and the mayor’s pushing forward for the police officers as well. My big thing would be, let’s start doing some things. We don’t have to hit a home run, but we need to keep getting some singles along the way.