Formation of Fort Smith Regional Council announced

story by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

The wait is over for those who have believed the Fort Smith metro area needed a high-powered, “good suits” club to improve the region’s socio-economic standing.

Now the wait is on for results.

Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Paul Harvel on Friday (May 18) announced the formation of the Fort Smith Regional Council, a group of area “CEOs” who seek to emulate the success of the Northwest Arkansas Council and a group formed in 1963 in Little Rock. Harvel made the announcement during an economic development update luncheon with around 300 chamber members.

The NWA Council was formed in 1990 “to promote the growth, vitality and development of Northwest Arkansas.” Its initial leadership was from top executives at Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc.

Development of an interstate connection (now Interstate 540 between Alma and Fayetteville) and a regional airport (now the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport) were a few of the top goals of the NWA Council.

Harvel said the Fort Smith Regional Council has received “strong engagement” from area business leaders “who have a lot of ability” within their respective companies to “exert influence.”

Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based First Bank Corp., is the inaugural chairman of the council. Speaking to the luncheon crowd, Sicard said the first major priorities of the council will be to develop a partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council, focus on infrastructure projects and focus on workforce education.

“Yes, we will narrow those down,” Sicard said when asked if the newly formed council would seek specific objectives within the three goals.

Judy McReynolds, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based Arkansas Best Corp., will serve as council vice chair, and Cliff Beckham, president and CEO of Van Buren-based USA Truck, has agreed to the council’s secretary-treasurer post.

The members pay dues to belong to the group — payment not disclosed — and 20 are members, Sicard said.

In addition to Sicard, McReynolds and Beckham, the Fort Smith Regional Council members as of Friday are:
Leo Anhalt, SSI Incorporated
Dr. Paul Beran, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
Michael Callan, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp.
Steve Clark, Propak Logistics
Sam Fiori, K-Mac Enterprises
Paul Fox, OK Industries
Ryan Gehrig, Mercy-Fort Smith
Lisa Grenier, Kraft-Planters
Melissa Hanesworth, Hiram Walker-Pernod Ricard USA
Bill Hanna, Hanna Oil & Gas Co.
Jim Patridge, BancorpSouth
Craig Rivaldo, Arvest Bank
Melody Trimble, Sparks Health System
Ron Tucker, Baldor Electric Co.-ABB
Jim Walcott, Weldon, Williams & Lick
William S. Walker, Stephens Production Co.
Fred Williams, Williams-Crawford & Associates

Harvel will serve as the council’s first director. He said no formal initial meeting of the group is yet planned.

In terms of creating jobs, the council has given itself a tough mandate.

The number of employed during March was an estimated 116,735, up from 115,892 during February but almost 5% below the 122,809 employed in the region during March 2011. Unemployed persons in the region totaled 10,108 during March, down from 11,711 during February and below the 11,778 during March 2011.

The regional labor force — estimated number of working-age people in an area — totaled 126,843 during March, a decline of 7,744 people compared to March 2011. The regional labor force consistently remained above 130,000 beginning in April 2004, but fell below 130,000 in December. The labor force reached a high of 139,544 in June 2008.

Harvel also spoke on other economic development issues.
• According to chamber figures, Harvel said businesses in the region made capital investments of at least $190 million, and created 920 new jobs during 2011. Harvel said he realizes the number of area jobs fell in 2011, but said the job creation helps reduce the economic pain.

• Some of the capital investment in the area is for robotics and other advanced manufacturing, Harvel said. The good news is such investments help keep operations in the area, but the bad news is they don’t produce a lot of new jobs.

“Robotics are all over this city,” Harvel said.

• The chamber has raised $2.3 million for its economic development fund during 2011 and to-date in 2012. Harvel said that money has contributed toward expansions at several companies, including Gerber, Golden Living and River Bend Industries.

• Whirlpool is gone, and the company is not going to re-open the plant in the future, Harvel said. Whirlpool announced Oct. 27, 2011, it would close the large Fort Smith plant that produces refrigerators and has also produced ice-makers and trash compactors. The Whirlpool closure will result in the loss of 917 jobs. However, Whirlpool’s Fort Smith plant employed more than 4,500 in early 2006.

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“They are gone. They are not coming back,” Harvel said, adding that he believes all private and government organizations “did everything they could do” to keep Whirlpool from leaving.

• The Mitsubishi facility, completed but unoccupied, is not a failed project, Harvel said. Mitsubishi officials announced April 2 their decision to “mothball” the Fort Smith wind-turbine manufacturing that was expected to employ 400 at full production. Company officials cited litigation with General Electric and a weak demand for wind turbines as reasons for the move.

Harvel said he is confident the plant will eventually be utilized.

“Some day, jobs will be there. ... Maybe not with turbines,” Harvel said.

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Comments

Pleased to see this

I am pleased to hear of the formation of the Fort Smith Regional Council. Leaders communicating and working together has got be strong step in the right direction toward economic development for this region. I expect great things from them.

Long Overdue

The growth experienced in NW Arkansas was no accident. It came with a lot of hard work by those who had enough insight to plan for a prosperous future and then do whatever it took to turn those plans into a reality. “Build it and they will come.” If the Fort Smith area leaders don’t get busy planning for their own prosperous future the entire area will die and rot on the vine and in a few short years their kids will be forced to leave to find decent well paying jobs. I sincerely hope and pray our local business leaders have what it takes to make this new council and Fort Smith a huge success.

Kids

In case you haven't noticed, the kid's have been leaving for a long time now. There is a world beyond Fort Smith with vitality and promise. It is virtually impossible for Fort Smith to compete with the outside world. Where Ft. Smith can be competitive it chooses not to be. With our low cost of living, central location nationally,relatively low crime incidence(notice very few bars on people' windows and doors),short winters and summers getting just as hot elsewhere these days, Fort Smith needs a reality check and re-assessment of itself. Cater to students and senior citizens services then go from there. The food industry is already here, increase that footprint rather than boom and bust "glitzy and glamorous" high-tech windmill illusions. People and pets never stop eating, but the wind stops blowing. Mitsubishi was a nice try, let's move on and get down to reality albeit a mundane one.

New council old dogs new tricks

The real genius is Harvel. He got the biggest business owners/executives to pay yet another fee to the Chamber LOL. Seriously, this is a typical FS response. Let's face it these people are already leaders in their company's and sit on each others boards (paid and unpaid). If they haven't already come up with plans to get the region going, how is attending another meeting once in a while going to work? So what do we conclude from the big free lunch announcement? Here's the headline TCW. "Real Important People Will Gather at an Undetermined Time to Solve Undetermined Problems, Chamber Profits."

New council old dogs new tricks

If we were truly emulating NWA we have formed this in 1990 as they did . As usual, Fort Smith is a day late and a dollar short. Waited until all industry left then started. Another committee and another study and another committee and another study!

Dutchess-old dogs

Do you think we should have a study to study the study?

same 'ol

Here's the headline TCW. "Real Important People Will Gather at an Undetermined Time to Solve Undetermined Problems, Chamber Profits." Paul is great at this. Like others have said, this should have been done in the 90's instead of letting someone else worry about it. Some of the new "members" are VERY good at what they do. Now lets see if they can spread their knowledge and make something happen in the River Valley.

You are kidding!

Like others have said; a day late and a dollar short! Some of the names on this like the trucker from VB can't even run their own company! What a joke.

NWA & Regionalism

How many new Regional Councils has Fort Smith formed in recent years? How many Regional Councils does it take to equal a Sam Walton, a Don Tyson or a JB Hunt? Can a Regional Council be formed to emulate NWA without these types of men and the spirit that lives within their companies? Maybe I’m cynical toward regionalism, but I believe in the individual, the passion and freedom to seek a dream and before long, the whole region begins to follow the same dream. That is what is going on in NWA.

Owner Class Union v/s Labor Union

By sidestepping the hindrances of local democratic governance the Owner Class Union seeks extrajudicial access to the power of authority and monetary funds granted to the government via democracy by the people, at large. This usurption of authority and public tax dollars seized through subsidies for private business ventures is promoted by the media as job creation rather than the concentration of wealth, power and independence to the Owner Class Union at the expense of entrenching the masses deeper and deeper into wage slavery. The false economy created by the so called, "public private partnership" creates an environment that limits our expections to only having a job a and job seeking rather the self-employment and self ownership. The article itself states, one of the main focuses of the Owner Class Union council is workforce education. As if the public school system isn't already slanted at creating schools of job seekers rather than educated individuals capable of self-governace. Afterall, why would the Owner Class Union pay to train you on the job when they can take it out of your paycheck in taxes?

Great comment

+1. A little bit Trotsky, but very well said and cuts to the chase. Pay attention folks, that there is the truth even if you don't want to believe it. And it goes beyond party lines.