Economic growth, quality of life topics at House District 49 candidate forum

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 714 views 

Both candidates for the Arkansas House of Representatives District 49 seat, which represents the north side of Fort Smith, believe the district is key to economic development in the area, and both have an idea of how to stimulate and maximize that development.

Rep. Jay Richardson, a 51-year-old Democrat, is seeking reelection to the seat for a third term and faces Republican challenger Max Avery, a 36-year-old businessman. The two discussed their ideas for the region at a candidate forum held Wednesday (Nov. 2) and hosted by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Democracy Project. They face each other at the polls during the general election Nov. 8.

Richardson said he thinks the area is on its way to seeing great growth with the potential addition of the flight training mission at the 188th Fighter Wing with the work that is being done on Interstate 49.

“I think we are well on our way to blowing up, expanding the city and seeing great progress,” Richardson said.

With those two additions to the city and economy, the area must be ready to facilitate all that will be coming with them by having local and state officials who will get out and get involved by talking to business and understanding what they are doing, he said.

“What I envision for the north side of Fort Smith is to be a huge supporter of those two projects, through housing, work development and even through amenities that we can offer on the north side of town. We have the ability to do that,” Richardson said. “If we position ourselves to accept what is coming in and be able to support that and take advantage of the services. … I think what we have in Fort Smith will be something we have never seen before.”

Richardson said he has been working with bill writers on a draft bill to create universal zones, which piggybacks off what was created with the opportunity zones. An Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment. Richardson said the universal zone bill will “really put money back into impoverished communities, and those underdeveloped communities. It would provide tax credits for funding back to small businesses that are trying to get started or trying to keep their head above water.”

“I’m not waiting for the session to start working on things I know will drive our economy,” he said.

Avery said the district has a tremendous opportunity now in the ability to bring in new business and expand existing business but more needs to be done.

“I think one of the underutilized and underserviced pieces of our economy here has been port development and access to freight,” Avery said.

The interstate access and connection being built with the continuation of I-49 from Alma to Barling will open a connection for economic growth that must be capitalized on, he said.

“This is something I have been working on with other city leaders, to help make sure we are attracting logistic hubs here and setting up new trucking routes and … making sure we can supply drivers,” he said.

He said providing reasonable tax cuts to individuals and businesses will also help stimulate economic growth in the area.

“So they will be willing to reinvest into the community, so others will choose (this area) to come to from other parts of the country as well as to stay and operate their businesses,” Avery said. “With that, something I think we have to look at is general safety and addressing crime and making sure that continues to be something we look out for so we don’t have the crime situation continue to go up with the violence and things like that.”

Keeping the area safe will allow the city to attract people who want to locate their businesses in the area, he adds.

“We have been fortunate as a whole. We don’t have the crime situation a lot of other large cities have, but it’s something I want to make sure our police are funded … and that things are safe and clean, so people can be successful,” Avery said.

Another key to the continued success of the district, both candidates agreed, is stronger rights for renters.

“We have to make sure that the housing that is available has fair and reasonable access,” Avery said, and that while he doesn’t want to limit someone on their ability to lease something, the issue does need to be addressed by the legislature.

Richardson said he believes it is important to hold property owners accountable for providing safe, sufficient housing and legislators should continue to work toward higher expectations.

“All business owners are in business to make money, but I don’t believe they need to hit anybody over the head to make money, especially the way the economy is right now,” Richardson said.

Richardson said legislation recently passed that requires all rental properties to have smoke detectors is not enough.

“We still have people who are living in homes with broken windows that just have a piece of plyboard and people are expected to still live there,” Richardson said. “So we are continuing to work to change things.”