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Cabins, economic shift noted at Compass Conference

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

photos by Joel Rafkin
jrakfin@thecitywire.com

Lake Fort Smith State Park will welcome 10 new cabins by the end of 2012, Richard Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, said Friday (Feb. 24).

Davies announced the $1.899 million project at the Third Annual Compass Conference, presented by Benefit Bank. Other Compass Conference sponsors were Cox Communications and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. The City Wire conducted the conference in conjunction with its The Compass Report. (Link here for the story on the fourth quarter The Compass Report.)

The official project start date for the cabins was Feb. 21 with completion expected on Dec. 11. Five of the cabins will house one bedroom and clock in at 896 square feet, while the other five will consist of two bedrooms at 1,152 square feet. The cabins were designed by Tim A. Risley & Associates of Fort Smith, with Steele Development, of Bentonville, handling the construction.

Davies said the Department of Parks and Tourism has not set a fee schedule at this time, but that prices "would be comparable to Lake Ouachita and Devil’s Den."

TOURISM DIRECTIONS
Davies’ address to conference attendees at the Fort Smith Convention Center focused on tourism directions within the state. The Compass Conference focused on tourism in Arkansas because the tourism industry was one of the better performing sectors of the Fort Smith Regional economy during 2012.

"Tourism has finally been acknowledged as an industry in Arkansas. I remember back in the Seventies, we argued with economists about whether we had anything at all to do with the economy, but me being here today is a testament that advancements have been made. However, tourism is still the Rodney Dangerfield of economic development. We get no respect," Davies said.

Davies continued: "Tourism levels the economy out. And what is tourism? It’s hundreds of small businesses serving the traveler. I know it’s hard to get your arms around when you see big smokestacks, a huge parking lot and all that, but America is driven by small business, and that’s what hospitality and tourism is."

Davies credited the Fort Smith region because he said it "did better than the state as a whole," noting an increase in total travel payroll from 2010 to 2011 of $3.414 million, according to Western Arkansas Mountain Frontier’s 2011 year-end report.

The report also indicated an increase of $21.261 million in travel generated expenditures from $404.906 million in 2010 to $426.167 million in 2011. Travel generated jobs rose slightly as well from 3,652 to 3,688.

"We all take wherever we are for granted, and Arkansas is the worst I’ve ever seen about it," Davies said. "Do you realize we have 40 million people within 400-500 miles of us? All these Yankees and Texans are driving 400-500 miles to see these things we take for granted," he joked.

Davies continued: "We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to promote. Wherever we go, we need to never not promote Arkansas. Why would anyone want to relocate a business to a community they wouldn’t want to visit? Moving forward, we need to invest our dollars and our attitudes in Fort Smith, and in Arkansas."

ECONOMIC DIRECTIONS
Discussing the state of the regional economy, The Compass Report economist Jeff Collins of Streetsmart Data, warned attendees prior to Davies' address, that "manufacturing will not save us."

"I want to talk about the bigger issues, particularly that the structure of the economy has fundamentally changed," Collins said. "My job these days is to talk to Fortune 1,000 companies, and most all of them can’t stop talking about the technology adopted over the last few years, and how it’s changed their businesses. They’ve made investments in software and hardware. And what did they get rid of? Us."

Collins added, "Managing people is a messy business; managing equipment is much easier."

He also warned that, "The curves have all shifted. To produce a certain amount of output, it takes a lot less labor than it used to. You are not going to create the kind of employment you want to create in manufacturing. Over the last 20 years, we’ve been really good at smoke and mirrors. But all that employment we created was bought with debt. And if you look at the data after the decline, we’re back where we were seven years ago."

Collins challenged area businesses and the community as a whole to ask the question: "What will our strategy be? We need to come up with long run strategic plans —something that will generate jobs instead of constantly reacting to the way things are," he said.

Key to the area's future, Collins noted, is innovation.

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"There are skill sets continually highly valued in the economy, and generally, they are those skill sets we tend to avoid with a passion — skill sets that have a discipline in math," he said.

He also emphasized “the truth of a global economy” and how important it is to “embrace an entrepreneurial spirit” within the region.

"The world has fundamentally changed. Understand that the rules have changed, figure out what the rules are, and let’s kick some butt," Collins said. "You will never go wrong investing in yourself."

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