Fort Smith CEO group to be ‘extremely active’

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Paul Harvel expects the “Fort Smith Regional Council CEO Group” to be “extremely active” in the last part of 2012.

Among short-range planning goals, Harvel expressed hope that the 12-foot channel would prove to be a “two-to-three-year deal” and predicted “entrepreneurship and education” as long-range plans.

“It is extremely important to the companies in this city that we have a 12-foot channel on the (Arkansas) River,” Harvel said. “Very important.”

Harvel said the Fort Smith region has “so many companies that ship in to Houston, that won't bring it all the way up here because it's not 12-foot certified. But I know of companies right now that I feel would do major expansion. Other than the Chamber manager and other people saying, ‘Congressman, we need this now,’ now we have a lot of other people saying, ‘We really need to do this. Can you help us?’ I don't think it’s a 10-year deal.”

‘COMMUNICATING HAS STARTED’
On long-range planning goals for the Regional Council, Harvel believes entrepreneurship and education are two vital areas to the future of the region.

“Entrepreneurship will be a 10-year deal, at least,” Harvel said, adding that Fort Smith will be faced with some challenging questions.

“What kind of resources do you have? How do you analyze your community? What assets in your community do you have to make something happen? We’ll also have to look at universities. We’ve only had a four-year university, or only been giving four-year degrees out, for four years. That’s behind a lot of other universities.”

Harvel continued: “The good news is the communicating has started. We’ve had a lot of meetings with the Northwest Arkansas Council on what they're doing. I think a goal or objective that's happening right now, that has never happened in Fort Smith before, is we have an open door for communications (with other CEO groups), and we're beginning to go down the road to a working relationship with the Northwest Arkansas Council. Also, we will be visiting soon — can’t say when — with the CEO group in Little Rock. I think there are going to be some major things all three of these groups can work on.”

Back to Fort Smith, Harvel said that education “is a good sector for us,” adding that “Manufacturing has totally changed. Today, manufacturing is technology. Anything that we can do to stimulate that particular area is something we should focus on. Our robotics (at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith-UAFS) is absolutely phenomenal. Robotics is not just the wave of the future. It’s the wave. We have the only university in the nation right now that has robotics training.”

Harvel continued: “The $110 million investment that Gerber has done is a huge capital expansion, and involves huge mechanization. Training will be critical, and it won’t be like training used to be. The sophistication changes so much. I go to some plants where no one touches anything. The employees are educated back into an area, where they make more money, and there is more sophistication, in what they do.”

HOW THE REGIONAL COUNCIL WORKS
Harvel said that “as far as Fort Smith is concerned,” the Regional Council will focus mostly on “long-range planning.”

“You’re going to need a group that stays clued and keyed to long term projects that can make contacts and help. We will have several task forces that we will initiate. Like education and several others. Entrepreneurship, and so forth. These task forces that will meet, then will report to the overall group and we'll make decisions on where we're going to go, who's going to take what assignment, etcetera,” Harvel said.

Harvel also points out that the Regional Council can accomplish many larger goals that the Chamber of Commerce staff and board cannot.

“Your Chamber changes over quite often, but your CEO group is always hitched to the same goals and same objectives they're doing. I did this because your chamber board changes every three years, and your chairman, every year. Sure, your staff stays, but how do you keep that same continuity and same commitment?”

Don’t expect monthly meetings from the Regional Council, Harvel said, because it is a group comprised entirely of CEOs.

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“You don’t put them together and call press conferences,” he explained. “These CEOs, they just want to do something. You’ve got to take your hat off to these folks, who've said, ‘Let’s get involved in this community, long term, and see if we can help them.' Right now, the goal is to meet quarterly and organize and manage the task forces in between. September, October, and November, (2012) should be extremely active.”

Another reason, Harvel cites, for why the Regional Council is necessary is that “these people are all private. And for them to say, ‘I’m going to spend some time doing this,’ is a major statement. It takes a lot of time to run Baldor. It’s one thing for the head of the Chamber to call up and say something to the Governor or a Congressman. That’s not very high on the ladder. But it's another thing when the CEO of a company that employs 13,000 people calls. Then, you've got them engaged.”

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we'll see

Entrepreneurship and education are not goals. Calling those goals is like declaring a war on terror, poverty, or drugs -it's doomed to fail by definition. If this group can focus on the concrete (like 49 and the channel, maybe they can make a difference. Otherwise, well, we'll see...