In 2005, just two years after Whirlpool gave us a clear hint about the future of its Fort Smith manufacturing operations, business and community leaders in the Fort Smith region had a chance to undertake an aggressive, progressive and risky — in terms of being a new approach — plan to change regional socio-economic realities.
The TIP plan was the product of an impressive $4 million capital campaign conducted by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. The plan was named after Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies, the company that conducted research on the regional economy and authored the “Tipping Point” plan.
“No amount of industry recruitment, regardless of how intense or persistent, would yield economic success,” the TIP plan noted of the region’s economic outlook.
It also noted that a successful socio-economic development strategy is one that “stretches the boundaries of what constitutes economic action,” and that “recommendations that are at the core of this plan go well beyond a traditional framework.”
The TIP plan strongly suggested that regional business and civic leaders place themselves in “crisis” mode and act accordingly.
“In short, Fort Smith must do two things,” noted the key paragraph in the TIP Plan. “It must see itself as facing an impending crisis. And, secondly, it must make the kind of long term commitments that — however painfully — pull it away from the brink.”
For a variety of reasons we won’t now discuss, the chamber leadership failed to execute what was a good game plan. Our leadership at that time failed to take smart and aggressive risks that would have stretched the “boundaries of what constitutes economic action.” The chamber, city of Fort Smith, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and other entities pulled back into their respective shells. It was clear that our leaders were sustainers rather than builders.
And what have they sustained? Well, we had roughly 6,000 people unemployed in the region at the end of 2005, and around 129,000 people with jobs. As of May 2012, there were about 9,900 people without jobs, and about 119,000 people employed in the region. Also, Whirlpool officially closed its Fort Smith plant on Friday (June 29).
We have successfully sustained a downward trend.
The TIP plan strongly advised that we create fertile ground for local entrepreneurs. We didn’t do that. We’ve failed to reach out with innovative and aggressive plans to recruit entrepreneurs from other U.S. research universities — even the university research programs just a few miles up the hill in Fayetteville.
The TIP plan strongly advised we create unique cultural amenity opportunities that help retain the best and brightest brains in the region. We didn’t do that — and, no, water parks, ball fields and Ferris Wheels don’t qualify.
The TIP plan strongly advised we do more to “capture outward expansion from Northwest Arkansas.” We didn’t do that. In fact, when we had that chance, we failed to act. Duralor is now in Springdale with its growing advanced manufacturing operation.
In 2005, the TIP plan noted: “Located in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley, the greater Fort Smith area faces a number of challenges common to manufacturing dependent communities: relatively low levels of educational attainment, out-migration from the urban core, an under-performing downtown, and the ever-looming threat of layoffs and plant closings.”
The conclusion holds true today — especially with Trane and Rheem likely to go the way of Whirlpool.
In 2005, the TIP plan noted: “Early in the course of this project it became clear that there were systemic issues facing the River Valley, issues that both compromised the ability to recruit new industry and that threw a stark light on economic vitality.”
The conclusion holds true today.
What also holds true today are many of the solutions presented in the TIP plan. It could be that the TIP plan is a don’t-have-to-reinvent-the-wheel benefit to the newly formed Fort Smith Regional Council. The council, formed by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, is a group of area business leaders who seek to emulate the success of the Northwest Arkansas Council and Fifty for the Future, a group formed in 1963 in Little Rock.
Before more dust collects on the machinery of the Fort Smith regional economy, maybe the council dusts off the TIP plan and attempts to stretch “the boundaries of what constitutes economic action. Maybe they use the TIP recommendations to “go well beyond a traditional framework” of socio-economic development and prove they are indeed builders rather than sustainers.
As I’ve noted many times, we are a great people, in a great place, who are capable of great progress. Seven years ago we came close to connecting a great plan with great leadership. Am not sure we can afford a disconnect on another seven years.