Helping Hot Springs grow during changing times

By Wayne Bryan Published October 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Jim Fram became president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce in May. He is also president of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, a working group that has created a strategic plan for economic development within the community by seeking greater diversity in the tourism-based economy.

Jim Fram said it is easy to promote Hot Springs as a place to work and live because of the city’s quality of life. After all, he said, the area attracted him and his family.

“Three lakes, a dozen golf courses, horse racing and Arkansas Razorback football on Saturdays — that’s why we came here — all that and the challenge of helping the community diversify its economy,” said Fram, who became president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce in May.

Since the first Americans came to the Valley of the Vapors, along Hot Springs Creek and the steaming springs that dot Hot Springs Mountain, the business of the community has been tourism. That ability to attract visitors from all over the nation and the world has always kept the economy of Hot Springs healthier than the state as a whole, but that also carries some dangers.

“This city has a strong reputation as a tourism community,” Fram said. “I understand that, and I am supportive of that, but for a strong community, there must be diversity.”

Fram’s misgiving goes along with issues highlighted in a summary of the community’s strategic plan for future growth.

“These advantages have bred a certain complacency,” according to the report. “The risk is increasingly one in which ‘good is good enough.’ In fact, there are dire warning signals. Population growth is stagnant. The tax base is fragile. Bold initiatives, from education to redevelopment, have received only tepid support, and many of the greatest assets in the community are increasingly in danger of decline.”

“The plan has 148 pages and four elements for making the economy stronger,” said Fram, who is also president of the Hot Springs Metro partnership, “and it’s my job to implement that plan.”

The chamber president will tackle the assignment armed with the experience he has gained over time and in a variety of communities.

“I have worked in cities where the local economies were built around a strong military presence, the oil and gas industry, and a big university,” Fram said. “It is a problem of having all your economic eggs in one basket.”

Tending to a growth economy may come naturally for Fram. He was born in Phoenix, Ariz., and lived in nearby Tempe until he was in junior high school.

“My father was an accountant, but he was also a cattle rancher,” Fram said. “We traveled first to Colorado and then to Arkansas looking for a ranch for raising cattle. We moved to around Fort Smith because my parents picked the spot, and we started with 80 acres and grew. But Dad never stopped being an accountant.”

After high school, Fram attended Fort Smith Junior College, now the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.

“I then served in the Air Force and finished my degree later at [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock].”

As he began his career, Fram was active in the Jaycees, the Arkansas Junior Chamber. After running for state president and losing, he was hired as the organization’s executive director. From there, he joined a political campaign that left him unemployed after election day.

“I became executive director of the Harrison [Regional Chamber of Commerce], and I was there for seven years,” Fram said. “Then I went to the Little Rock [Regional Chamber of Commerce] as the executive vice president, the No. 2 person.”

Serving in Little Rock from 1989 until 1992, Fram said it was an exciting time, as Gov. Bill Clinton campaigned to become president. Fram said the city was always being visited by political and major media personalities, who often met with chamber leaders.

With a career in chamber work established, Fram moved to Fort Hood, Texas. He served as CEO in economic-development organizations and chambers of commerce in Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

“The chamber of commerce world is a big fraternity,” he said.

Before coming to back to Arkansas and Hot Springs, Fram was senior vice president for economic development for the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“We are extremely fortunate to have a person with the management and economic-development experience and skills of Jim Fram join our team to continue the growth and progress that residents and business people of the Hot Springs region have come to expect from the chamber and the partnership,” said Steve Trusty, chairman of the chamber board, in announcing Fram’s hiring.

Fram has earned Certified Chamber Executive and Certified Economic Developer status, one of only a few active professionals in the nation to hold both designations.

Fram said that in the mid-1990s, the work of chambers of commerce changed, especially in the area of economic development.

“We used to say we chased smokestacks,” he said. “It didn’t matter what kind of company we brought in. We would go to Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago and talk about cheap land and cheap labor.”

After years of that approach, Fram said, such sales pitches usually brought in only low-paying jobs that could hurt the economy of a region over time.

“Today, we look for a more-balanced approach,” he said. “We talk about quality of life. We don’t just look for jobs.”

That means economic-development planners must look at the entire community, from educational opportunities to the environment. Time are changing, he said.

“Times are not bad; they are just different. I would call the Great Recession a time of major change in our economy,” Fram said. “Business will emerge from this time very slowly and will be doing more with less — with fewer people, they will make more products.”

He said communities must work together for a regional approach. The Hot Springs Chamber had been working with the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce on a joint industrial park. Fram said that frankly, there is not enough flat land in Garland County for a large industrial area.

“You can’t build a plant on the side of a hill,” he said. “We have been walking over a lot of land looking for the right place.”

Both Fram and Malvern Chamber Executive Director Nikki Launius are looking for a site near Malvern.

“We have plenty of flat hand here,” Launius said. “It is good for a lot of people for the two chambers to work together.”

In another cooperative effort, Fram said, Henderson State University’s plan to have a physical presence in Hot Springs will have a huge impact on economic development.

“If we are going to have high-paying jobs, there must be educational opportunities,” Fram said. “People need a place to get their MBA degree and to move up in their careers.”

HSU President Glen Jones recently told the Tri-Lakes Edition that the selection of a site for the HSU branch in downtown Hot Springs would be made soon.

Fram also met this week with the Oaklawn Foundation to talk about its scholarship program.

“I have seen that their scholarships are often given to many nontraditional students,” he said, “like single moms and people in their mid-30s. That is something we can show when we talk about the area.”

Oct. 10, the International Economic Development Council announced the election of Fram to its board of directors. The IEDC is a nonprofit organization serving economic developers. With more than 4,000 members, the council is the largest organization of its kind in the world.

“I am honored to be elected,” Fram said. “This organization does excellent work by assisting professionals to promote economic vitality. They provide assistance, training and a network of economic developers who all work together to enhance quality of life and facilitate growth.”

Finally, Fram was asked if his time in Hot Springs will be his last job.

“It could be, but I thought the same thing about the last three jobs,” he said. “I cannot imagine not working.”

Wayne Bryan can be contacted at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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