story by Michael Tilley
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Fort Smith native Travis Stephens says the Clarksville-Russellville area of Johnson and Pope County is an economic island between Fort Smith and central Arkansas.
But that’s not necessarily a disadvantage.
Stephens, CEO and economic development officer of the Clarksville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce, said a key to economic development is being able to market a large labor force. The larger the labor force, the more options for recruiting new jobs or convincing existing large employers to remain and expand.
The Clarksville-Russellville “labor shed” has a workforce of about 174,000, according to Stephens. And while the Clarksville chamber is a member of the Fort Smith Regional Alliance, Stephens says he works a lot with Jeff Pipken, president and CEO of the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“There is a lot we can do to help each other,” Stephens said. “It’s really all about the labor force. That’s really the big thing in economic development. ... As far as attracting that large company, that major company that can add millions of dollars in new equipment, the challenge is to show them where the workers will come from.”
Stephens, who is almost two years into the job, was first drawn to the post by the can-do attitude of county leaders. He continues to be encouraged by the county’s economic development assets and attitude.
“I really believe Clarksville is a very progressive community. That’s one of the reasons I took the job. How many towns of 9,000 people go out and get a big-time consulting firm to pull together a strategic plan?” Stephens said of the plan developed for the county by Boyette Strategic Advisors prior to Stephens’ hiring. “And there was not catalyst for it. Typically, it takes a catastrophic event with smaller towns to do that, but here, they just wanted to be ahead of the curve.”
That progressive nature was evident in November 2011 when Clarksville voters approved a bond package and sales tax increase to fund an aquatics center project and build new fire and police stations. Considering the conservative nature of Arkansas’ rural counties, the 61% margin of voter approval of the aquatics center was impressive. The fire station project passed with 65% approval, and a new police station passed with a 60% favorable vote.
City officials will soon open the more than $9 million aquatics center. The new center will include an eight-lane lap indoor swimming pool, water therapy pool and outdoor water park including a pool, slides, lazy river and children’s area.
INFRASTRUCTURE, EDUCATION TOOLS
Despite having a relatively small labor force, Johnson County has an infrastructure advantage in that Interstate 40, a major east-west railway and the navigable Arkansas River closely hug the southern border of the county. Most of the county’s 2012 estimated 25,901 population – with a 2011 estimate of 9,251 in Clarksville – reside in the southern half of the county, with the northern half of the county being a scenic and rugged entry into the Ozark National Forest.
In addition to the infrastructure options, Stephens said county residents are near three universities. The University of the Ozarks is a liberal arts private college based in Clarksville. Just down the road is Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, and specific workforce training options are available in Ozark at the Arkansas Tech University-Ozark campus. The three institutions provide a variety of options that help with economic development efforts.
“Part of a workforce quality is not just college degrees, but to have skilled trades. ... You want to be well rounded,” Stephens said.
Part of Stephens’ job is to push lower the county’s jobless rate. The county’s jobless rate was 8.1% in January, up from 7.5% in January 2012, and unchanged from 8.1% in January 2011. By way of comparison, the rate was lower than the Fort Smith metro rate of 8.7%, and below the 8.4% in Sebastian County.
Part of that effort includes a regional approach within the county. The cities of Lamar and Coal Hill are members of the Clarksville-Johnson County chamber.
“We definitely preach regionalism, and I think we’ve had success in working with the other towns in the county,” Stephens said.
Other than the challenge presented by having a relatively small labor force, Stephens said the pace of technological change also presents an obstacle to most small cities in the U.S.
“It boils down to the fact that we’re a small town in Arkansas trying to keep up as technology changes almost every day,” he explained.
Such change, however, could also be the biggest economic development driver. Stephens is convinced that fostering a climate in which younger generations use technology to create new products and services could boost the economy.
“I would like to see more of an entrepreneurial-based economy in the county, where our people are driving that (jobs) growth,” Stephens said.