guest commentary by David Potts
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Last month my article “We have arrived” focused on a conversation about Fort Smith compared to Pine Bluff and was provoked by a “top ten list” ranking Fort Smith as one of the 10 poorest cities in the United States, one rank below Pine Bluff. The rankings were based on median household income.
In reality, when comparing Fort Smith to Pine Bluff as a place to live, Fort Smith’s advantage places Pine Bluff’s in the Pee Wee league. People are moving from Pine Bluff by the bus load.
But what does it look like when we compare Fort Smith with Northwest Arkansas? When I was in high school, Fort Smith was more prominent in the state than Northwest Arkansas, second place only to Little Rock. We’ve lost ground and are no longer in second place. This causes me to wonder where will we be in another 30 years.
Let’s look at a quick snap shot comparison of Benton County and Sebastian County based on the United States Census Bureau’s Population Estimate Program for 2012.
Benton County’s median household income is reported as $52,159 compared to Sebastian County’s $40,680. Benton County’s population grew 4.9% between 2012 compared to Sebastian County’s 1.2%. Also, 27.6% of Benton County’s adult population has a college degree compared to 19% in Sebastian County.
But we did beat Benton County in one category. It only takes Sebastian County commuters 17.5 minutes to drive to work. In Benton County, on the average it takes commuters an additional 3.1 minutes to drive to work, one way. Over a year, Benton county commuters lose more than an accumulated day of time, a day of their life, driving to work and back home. But then if it adds an additional $11,479 to household income, it might be worth the time.
Some may say this comparison is not meaningful since Benton County is home to Wal-Mart. I would argue it provides a picture of the possibilities of what could happen in Fort Smith if Fort Smith could develop a mindset and a vision of the future and work together to attract (or grow our own) economic development. With economic growth and the related growth in tax revenues, Fort Smith could develop the related infrastructure that would encourage a higher quality of life. Of course that would take strong leadership. And that’s where my understanding of the issue falters. From where would this leadership come?
First, let’s define leadership. Just because you are elected as the town mayor doesn’t mean you are a leader, it means you won an election. Just because you are the head of the local chamber of commerce doesn’t mean you are a leader. It might just mean you interview well when applying for a job. Just because a person holds a job traditionally thought to be a position of influence doesn’t mean their influence will be beneficial to their stakeholders. Their positions really mean only one thing: they got the job.
As ordinary citizens, we look to people in “positions” to be our leaders responsible for making our cities and towns great places to live. But maybe we are misdirected in thinking that our government and institutional leaders should be responsible for the future of the Greater Fort Smith Area except in matters of trash pickup and animal control. After all, Benton County was fortunate to be the home of Sam Walton, where years after his death the county still benefits by being the home of Wal-Mart, one of the world’s great corporations. And Bentonville wasn’t located at the intersection of major interstates and highways, nor was it located on a major navigable river. Sam Walton built Wal-Mart around a vision. He opened his first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Ark., then led his “team” to realizing his vision. Sam Walton and his teams found a way to thrive in Podunk, Ark. And thrive they did.
In its most simplistic terms leadership is about having a clear vision for the future and engaging people by communicating that vision and presenting a course of action to make that vision reality. My question is, “What’s our vision?” If I missed the communication of the vision then what’s our plan? I want the Greater Fort Smith Region to be significant in its own right, not as life in the shadow of Benton County. I want our schools, our healthcare, our quality of life, and our job markets to be the best. I want our children to return with their college degrees because they have opportunities to be successful at home, not to feel they must move elsewhere.
I wasn’t fortunate to know or work for Sam Walton, but he was a “public” figure and much has been said and written about the man. When preparing to write this article I, as anybody would, consulted Google and asked what makes a great leader. One of Google’s answers was a reference to a blog post hosted by The Leadership Institute at Harvard College titled “Ten Rules of Success from Sam Walton.” Click the link and take a minute to read them. Although these rules were written in reference to leading Wal-Mart to greatness, they could be adapted to any organization or institution.
After reading Sam’s 10 rules, it made me wonder. Will Fort Smith ever have any leaders that live by Sam’s first rule and really love Fort Smith, believe in it, and work every day doing the best they can so that soon the people of Fort Smith catch their passion for the vision? But then it begins with a vision. Is Fort Smith’s vision to better than Pine Bluff or to be the best place in the world for you and I to live?
I love Fort Smith. And when I say I love Fort Smith it includes Van Buren, Greenwood, Alma, Hackett, Bonanza. It includes Roland, Muldrow, Sallisaw, and Poteau. I even love Moffett (or West Fort Smith). It includes all the small towns within a 50 mile radius. I love the people and the culture. I believe we are all part of the same community.
But I’m a numbers person. Benton County’s median household income of $52,159 compared to our median household income of $40,680? It demonstrates that something’s missing. We need to narrow the gap. We need to find our Sam Waltons for positions of influence. We need a clear vision of the future. We need our own renaissance.