MORRILTON — Morrilton native Jerry L. Smith said he’d dreamed of coming back to do economic-development work in his hometown, and Monday, the chamber of commerce board made that happen.
Smith, who lives in Jonesboro, was hired as president and CEO of the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway County Economic Development Corp.
“It is a new chapter, it really is, being able to come back to where my family called home for seven generations,” the 64-year-old Smith said, referring to the Solgohachia and Morrilton area.
His great-grandfather had Smith’s Grocery store, which was operated in different locations by his grandfather and an uncle.
Smith left Morrilton in 1968 after graduating from high school and went to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where he majored in political science. “My folks lived here until the ’70s and moved to Little Rock,” Smith said.
Throughout his career, he said he has worked with cities in the area of community and economic development. He worked for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, as a community-development specialist.
In 1989, he and his family moved to Jonesboro to work for Arkansas State University’s Delta Center for Economic
Development, where his most recent position was as project director. He and his wife, Betty Ann, also a Morrilton native, have a daughter, Laura Marie Smith, 28, of Jonesboro.
Smith said his wife retired last year as a teacher in the Valley View School District in Jonesboro.
That’s when his dream began to materialize.
“The reason it’s a dream — I have wanted to take my experience that I have picked up in working with dozens of communities over the years and apply it at the local level, but what I really wanted, though, was for it to work in with our plans to retire and live in our cabin on Petit Jean Mountain,” Smith said.
“The piece of the puzzle I was hoping would happen, because I wasn’t ready to stop working, was that we could combine our retirement with me getting a job doing community development in Morrilton. It has come together,” he said.
Former Morrilton chamber president and CEO Brandon Baker left in May to take a job as environmental coordinator for Southwestern Energy.
The open position drew 15 applicants, said Miles Lacy, president of the chamber board.
Smith’s experience gave him the edge, Lacy said.
“Jerry has over 20 years of experience in community development and economic development — just his vast knowledge [stood out]. We had other people that had vast knowledge, too, and we did set up interviews with seven of the 15,” Lacy said.
He said two people decided not to be interviewed. “We did interview five people, and really, five great candidates,” Lacy said.
Cody Hill, 29, director of membership and events at the chamber, has been filling in as interim president and CEO. Hill was one of the 15 applicants for the position.
Lacy said Hill was “strongly considered.”
“He did a very good job as interim,” Lacy said. “He will learn from Jerry, and Jerry, I think, will learn from Cody and benefit from his knowledge, because Cody knows everybody around here. I think Cody; Vondra Rainey, administrative assistant; and Jerry will make a very strong team.”
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about the work Cody is doing there, so I hope he doesn’t have plans to move on,” Smith said.
Smith said he won’t make immediate changes.
“I told the board I wanted to listen to the leaders and residents for the first few days there. That may turn out to be a few weeks. We don’t want to come in and just start changing things. We first want to find out what’s pressing and tend to that, and I’m not sure what that is,” Smith said.
On the economic-development side, Smith said Morrilton has the attributes that can attract jobs.
“It’s a matter of vigilance. You just have to stay there in the game that people know of your existence, the opportunities you have,” Smith said.
“It’s incredibly competitive and hard to actually create new jobs, but Morrilton has all the things in place, all of the basics in place. It’s just a matter of staying after it. A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Smith said he will pull from his experience in economic development.
“What helps that is when you have a real strong network. I hope I’m able to bring that added asset to the table in Morrilton. You can’t help but have that when you’ve been doing it as long as I have,” he said, laughing.
“In terms of goals, I’d like to see the membership of the chamber become more dynamic in the sense that it is seen as a place for people to be a part of, whether they’re running a business, are part of a business or not,” he said.
Smith said he wants the chamber to be a place for “the average resident,” too.
“They’re part of the economy. If people are taking care of their place, they’re helping the economy because the business world has to have a nice community,” he said. “Everyone taking care of their lawn, helping their neighbors, volunteering in the community — that’s all part of economic development.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.