story by Michael Tilley
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In moving to Northwest Arkansas, West Virginia natives Marcia and Dana Davis were comforted by the hills and valleys along Interstate 540 between Alma and their new home.
“It just felt like home,” Dana Davis said during a recent interview at the Powerhouse Seafood and Grill.
Davis, 57, is the new president and CEO of the Bentonville Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce. His first day on the job was March 4.
His path to Bentonville is not typical of a chamber executive
The attorney began in West Virginia working at high levels of state government. He was the chief deputy Attorney General in West Virginia. He also served as the No. 2 person and interim director of the West Virginia Economic Development Office. It was there he helped craft and implement the state’s first strategic economic development plan. It was rolled out in 1992.
An expected track for someone like Davis who had risen through the ranks so quickly would be to seek an elected office.
“I really enjoyed the public service aspect of the work,” Davis said during the March 14 interview with The City Wire, “but I never really had any aspiration to run for public office. ... I believed that I could impact policy without having to do that.”
Davis grew up in a family that owned small businesses. One was a restaurant near Charleston, W.V., in which Davis learned firsthand the ups and downs of owning a small business. There were numerous times he would work a double shift at the restaurant because employees wouldn’t show up. His economic development work, he said, put him in an arena in which he could help small businesses.
When he was not selected to be director of the West Virginia Economic Development Office, Davis left public work in 2001 and began a new career in a private legal practice. But the desire for public service kept calling. He and his wife began looking at growth corridors in the east of the Mississippi River that might present an opportunity for public service.
“I just wanted to get back to working with businesses again,” Davis explained.
It was about that time that the middle of the three Davis sons earned a National Merit Scholarship. He chose to attend the University of Oklahoma. It was on a trip to Norman, Okla., that they were impressed with the corridor between Oklahoma City and Dallas.
It just so happened that the Lawton, Okla., Chamber of Commerce was looking for a new president. He was hired for that job in 2004. His background became more diversified in that job considering that much of the Lawton economy revolves around Fort Sill, a key U.S. military base focused on artillery training.
Three years later Davis was attracted to the high-growth north Dallas suburb of Southlake, Texas. He and his wife fell in love with the city and the conveniences found in the Dallas metro area. But then the Bentonville Bella Vista job came open. Davis knew Bentonville was the headquarters for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., but he didn’t know a lot about the region.
His research discovered several attributes that he and his wife found impressive. First was the number of “transplants” to the area who planned to retire to the area. Davis said roughly 80% of people he spoke to about the area were not from the area but had no plans to live anywhere else.
“That was a tell-tale sign for us,” Davis said.
Obviously, the growth and economic opportunity in the region was attractive. But more so than that, Davis said, was the commitment of area business and civic leaders to continue the progress.
“I look to see if the people hiring you are really committed,” Davis said of the chamber Board of Directors. “They are very committed to what the chamber could do. ... They all have a dedication to ensure that our chamber is relevant to Northwest Arkansas.”
Davis said his law background, previous chamber work and experience working in state government at top levels helped him land the Bentonville Bella Vista job.
As of the March 14 interview, Davis said he was “very pleased” with the professionalism and “eagerness of the staff” to help him transition into the job. Davis plans to visit with former Chamber President Ed Clifford in the near future.
“I certainly want to take advantage of his knowledge and expertise, and, frankly, his connections,” Davis said of Clifford.
Continuing to be a “strong partner with the Northwest Arkansas Council” and letting the world know “Benton County is open for jobs,” Davis responded when asked about some of his top goals.
He also maintains that passion to support small business.
“Yes, there are many big companies here ... but we must have those programs that support small business. We have to ensure that, programmatically, we support these businesses, these small business owners,” Davis said.