Central Arkansas leaders challenged to think regionally

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 781 views 

Many of the challenges facing central Arkansas are regional and not limited to a city or county – a reality that leaders must communicate to the public, Pulaski County Director of Public Works Tab Townsell said Wednesday (Feb. 28) at Power Up Little Rock, an economic development series presented by Arvest Bank at the Clinton Presidential Center.

That session was titled “The State of the Region.” Participating in a panel discussion along with Townsell were Patrick Schueck, president and CEO of Lexicon; Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health; and Cathy Tuggle, owner and principal broker of Apartment Hunters. Jay Chesshir, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, moderated the discussion.

Townsell, the former executive director of the regional planning group Metroplan and former Conway Mayor, said that since 1950, northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas have emerged as metropolitan areas. Northwest Arkansas is doing a better job of creating a good quality of life, he said.

He said cities and counties should work with their regional neighbors to complete infrastructure projects. The extra match money they can attain by working together improves the chance that the Arkansas Department of Transportation will prioritize a project.

“We have to understand that we now have regional problems, but we don’t have a structural mechanism, governmental mechanism to address at a regional level. … We don’t want more government, but with government, you do get the mechanisms by which you can publicly finance infrastructure. We’re going to need more tools to do the major projects,” he said.

He said community leaders must do a better job of explaining to the public the regional nature of many challenges.

“If we’re going to build these kind of coalitions, we’ve got to explain ourselves more than we did five years ago,” he said. “We’ve got to explain why. Generally, reasonable people – even though they’re fired up politically – generally, reasonable people can be addressed in reasonable ways, and we’ve got to be a part of that.”

Other panelists focused their remarks on their particular sectors. Wells, only the third Baptist Health CEO since World World War II, said labor challenges have been returning to normal levels after the COVID pandemic. The improvement has been aided by what he called a “forced shift to technology use that we may not have considered in the past.”

Looking ahead, he said “things that we do today are going to be more affordable, easier to do, less intensive, faster, you know, a lot of outpatient shift. Things we can do where you don’t have to come to the hospital anymore.”

Schueck, whose Port of Little Rock-based company does steel fabrication, construction and golf courses, said supply chain and input costs have settled down. Steel prices have steadied. Labor is still an issue and there are not enough truck drivers, but the markets are good. His company’s revenues have increased from $300 million in 2018 to $1 billion the past year.

Tuggle said an influx of apartment traffic occurred during COVID as real estate agents couldn’t find enough housing inventory. She said there are 40,000 multi-family units in Pulaski County, and 595 were built in 2023. At the same time, 600 units were lost during last year’s tornadoes. She said this year 1,350 units were expected to be built while the 600 lost units will be brought back online. Rental rates have increased 20% in the last year because of inflation. It’s now difficult to pay less than $800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Apartment occupancy rates during COVID were 98-100%. Now they are 92-93%, which is still high. Those kinds of occupancy rates are a cue for investors to build, she said.

“I really think our developers have been very smart at calculating when to build, what to build, and I’ve never known us to overbuild through the 33 years that I’ve been in the industry,” she said.

Chesshir noted the announcement by Total Quality Logistics last week that it was opening a new office in Little Rock was the 40th such announcement in the region since 2020. Those announcements have represented more than 10,750 jobs with $427 million in new payroll and more than $1.8 billion in capital investment. According to a recent survey, individuals from more than 40 counties drive to the Port of Little Rock or the Clinton National Airport every day to work, making it a regional economy.

Chessir said the next Power Up Little Rock event April 24 will discuss quality of place and will feature Bryan Sanders, Arkansas’ first gentleman, and Katherine Andrews, the first director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation.