Many metro areas around the country have what was once referred to as a “good suits” club — a collection of well-resourced business decision makers able to build or sustain a dynamic regional economy.
The Northwest Arkansas Council was formed more than 20 years ago because amazing growth — fueled primarily by Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt — was threatened by infrastructure issues. There is the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Interstate 540 between Alma and Fayetteville as proof the NWA Council was effective.
In Little Rock, what would become known as the “Fifty for the Future” was formed to convince the world that Little Rock and central Arkansas could be a progressive business community despite a state government that believed black children had no business in white public schools. The Little Rock group has been less obvious than the NWA Council in its role, but it was a factor in the tremendous renaissance of the river districts in Little Rock and North Little Rock.
We now have, according to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Fort Smith Regional Council (FSRC). Now what?
Well, maybe we encourage the FSRC to be MUCH MORE strategic in terms of public relations, announcements and transparency. The first public news of the council appeared to be an afterthought in that it was briefly mentioned near the end of a recent chamber economic development luncheon. If this new council is to be an important player going forward, then please treat it as such.
Furthermore, many folks in the region have seen development plans and groups come and go. They are now overly cynical would appreciate some clearly communicated objectives that are as specific and measurable as possible. Please don’t tell us you plan to work on infrastructure and workforce education.
Interstate 49, river deepening/new ports and workforce can’t be broad blankets in which we wrap our economic development activities. Those are important and we should push for those, but this region needs a group focused on innovative approaches to bolster the fundamentals. Lobbying for I-49 won’t recruit or retain jobs in the region. The millions spent on deepening the Arkansas River from 9-foot to 12-foot will have a very low dollar-to-job ratio.
To be sure, the regional fundamentals, economically speaking, are crap.
The size of the Fort Smith regional workforce grew from 114,111 in January 1990 to 127,459 in January 2012, up 11.69%. By comparison, the Northwest Arkansas region posted a 94.2% gain in the same period. But, you say, it’s unfair to compare us NWA because of Wal-Mart.
OK, well, the central Arkansas region had workforce growth of 25.3%, and the rate was 25.4% in Jonesboro.
In Hot Springs, the workforce growth was 36.58%. Texarkana (Texas and Arkansas) saw growth of 21.08%. Thank goodness for Pine Bluff. That depressed region saw its workforce dip 1.18%.
Fort Smith’s relatively low 11.69% gain is proof our regional leaders can set and meet goals, because most area leaders have for too long been comfortable with economic growth that is just a notch above the status quo — just enough to satisfy a comfortable blue-collar workforce.
But what has happened between January 2010 and January 2012 sets the Fort Smith region apart from ALL other Arkansas metro areas, and should be our clarion call.
In that two year span, the Fort Smith metro area lost an estimated 6,591 people from the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, more than 6,500 people have either quit looking for work or have left the region to seek work. And the Whirlpool and Bremner Cracker plants don’t close until June.
Northwest Arkansas’ workforce grew by 9,148 in the same two-year period. In central Arkansas, the workforce size grew by 8,841. Jonesboro’s workforce added 1,972 in the period. Texarkana was up by 1,771 and Hot Springs grew by 542.
And that depressed Pine Bluff region added 812 to the size of its workforce.
The workforce decline is a trend that must be reversed, but it won’t be reversed with window-dressing, talk and posturing. We need this council to be a leadership group similar to those in Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock. Some have said it is unfair to compare a Fort Smith council to those in NWA and Little Rock, and, sure, on a direct comparison level we don’t have a Sam Walton or a Jackson Stephens.
But expectations are relative; which is to say the creation and sustenance of an innovative and progressive business recruitment and retention effort — with considerably more than lip service given to entrepreneurial programs — is not too much to ask from the 20 folks who have agreed to be on the Fort Smith Regional Council.
Other cold hard facts to consider: Fort Smith was once the second-largest city within the state’s second largest metro area. At the end of 2010, the city was barely the state’s second-largest city and it was within Arkansas’ third-largest metro area. If trends continue, Fort Smith could by 2020 be the state’s third- or fourth-largest city within a metro area moving toward being the fourth-largest metro area.
Some have asked if the council was formed out of hope or despair. Not sure. Sometimes one feeds the other, and from my perspective either are acceptable as long as they ultimately fuel the desire to supplant rhetoric with results.
Indeed, the political and financial resources on the FSRC present the best option to stop our economic bleeding and put some color back into our cheeks. It is not hyperbole to suggest that if these folks can’t pull it off within the next 3-5 years, we could find ourselves losing even the small economic gains made since 1990.