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Jobs, education challenges noted at chamber banquet

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Business and community leaders from across the Fort Smith area gathered Friday afternoon for the 125th annual meeting of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Mike Callan, the chamber's 2012 board chairman, said the previous year had been one of challenges and resilience for the area.

"Fort Smith has seen its fair share of bad news," he said. "Every time, the chamber rises to the occasion."

Callan said the work of the chamber and its members had made a difference in the 188th Fighter Wing continuing to be a vital part of the community.

"We all know the results now," he said. "That's a glass half full."

Callan also referred to expansion projects across the business community as an accomplishment.

"Thirty industrial expansion projects (were undertaken) and 400 new jobs were created," he said.

In material distributed to individuals attending the meeting, the chamber listed a wide variety of other accomplishments during 2012. Highlights include:
• 146 new or expanding retail and service sector businesses;
• $52.3 million of capital investment in retail and service businesses;
• $38 million of capital investment in healthcare;
• 1,100 new jobs created through regional expansion projects;
• $57 million of capital investment in regional expansion projects; and,
• hosted 228 networking events and meetings with more than 11,000 participants.

The material also highlighted the 2012 Regional Business Expo, which showcased 78 businesses to over 600 attendees, and the Careers for our Regional Job Fair, which saw 850 job seekers and 80 employers participate.

The meeting's keynote speaker was Dr. Don Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System.

Bobbitt highlighted challenges and change in higher education, including the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

"We're at a fork in the road," Bobbitt said, explaining that the higher education industry could continue doing things the way it has been done during the last 1,000 years or it could adapt and change as society and business has changed.

He said higher education and business both must realize that competition is no longer limited to the region or nation in which it finds itself.

"Our competition doesn't exist regionally, it's across the world," he said. "The rest of the world will catch up to us."

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and other governors across the United States understand this, Bobbitt said. In order to stay competitive, Bobbitt said Beebe has challenged the state's colleges and universities to double the state's number of degreed adults.

"If we double the number of  degreed Arkansans, we will have 52% (of adults) with some sort of post-secondary education," he explained.

To meet the challenge, Bobbitt said he and other leaders in higher education are thinking outside the box.

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"You're going to see online become an important part of our portfolio," he said.

Bobbitt said the UA System must combine quality education with access to education, something he said UAFS had done quite well.

Even with the new challenges, Bobbitt said he was bullish about the future of higher education and the state's economy.

"I think new technologies will change the way we go forward," he said. "I have no doubt we'll be successful."

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