Supporters of economic development ask for help

By Wayne Bryan Published January 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Eric Hughes, chairman of the Jobs for Clark County campaign to extend a half-cent tax to fund economic development for the county, asks a group of business people and local officials to aid in the campaign, during a meeting in Arkadelphia.

ARKADELPHIA — Eric Hughes got up before a group of business people, educators and public officials during a meeting at Henderson State University on Jan. 9 and asked for their help to get a half-cent sales tax extended to fund economic development efforts in Clark County.

“It took a lot of people to get the tax passed seven years ago, and we’re at that point again,” said Hughes, an attorney and chairman of the Jobs for Clark County Committee. “So far, the committee is me and Kevin Jester, and we can’t do it all. I ask you to join us.”

Hughes said the committee would organize the campaign to extend the tax and gather funds and support to win a special election on the extension to be held in Clark County on March 11.

Speaking in the auditorium of the Caplinger Airway Science Building on the HSU campus, Hughes said members of the audience were being asked to give their time and money to the campaign and to take up leadership roles in the effort to extend the funding.

The money raised by the tax is used by the Economic Development Corporation of Clark County to build infrastructure to support commercial and industrial development and to convince prospective companies to bring jobs and investment into Clark County.

Keith Runyan, an investment adviser in Arkadelphia, spoke from the audience, saying an end of the tax would be a major setback for the community.

“People must realize that if they vote against the extension, they won’t just be slowing down the effort to grow, but sliding back 30 years,” he said. “We have built the foundation; now we want to build on that foundation.”

“The taxes raised some $8.6 million to incentivize industry to come here and to assist existing industry to stay and grow with us,” said Lewis Shepherd, a vice president at Henderson State and chairman of the county’s economic development corporation.

Shepherd opened the meeting by thanking those who attended it. He said that whether or not the people at the gathering decided to support the campaign could change lives in Clark County for decades.

Since the county’s economic development efforts were funded, the county has seen the creation of 512 jobs, including 100 when the Rainbow of Challenges facility opens at the site of the former business park in 2014.

Shepherd said the county is a model to others in the state when it comes to economic development.

“We have what most counties would die for — the funds to recruit industry,” he said to the gathering. “I believe with all my heart that the best is yet to come.”

Brown Hardman, a real estate broker and investment adviser who was active in the campaign to establish the economic development tax, said the community should support the continuation of the tax, or the county would lose “a whole lot more if we don’t pass [the extension] than if we do pass it. ”

People at the gathering had questions about the extension of the tax, such as Gurdon Mayor Clayton Franklin, who said voters have heard rumors that tax funds could be spent on a bypass around his city.

“Let the voters know just exactly what the deal would be,” Franklin said. “Could those funds be spent on a bypass?”

Brown responded, saying he would support a bypass if it creates hundreds of jobs in the region.

“We have to stop thinking Gurdon, Arkadelphia and Amity,” he said. “We have to think Clark County or southwest Arkansas.”

Franklin said people have also talked to him about the close ties between the Arkadelphia Alliance and the county’s economic development corporation. He said the governing boards often include many of the same people.

“We think the two should be different,” he said.

Hughes, who recently served as the Arkadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s advisory board president, responded that the tax campaign committee would be created from volunteers who stepped forward during the meeting and would be separate from the other organizations Franklin mentioned.

Henry Wilson, head of the Clark County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has invited speakers to talk with his organization’s members about the tax extension.

“I want to wait and hear it explained,” he said. “I would not want to vote for it right now.”

Austin Wingfield, an Arkadelphia insurance agent, said the key to the success of the coming campaign is communication.

“We have not been good at telling the voters where the money has been spent,” he said. “We need to get the word out about the good things the tax funds have paid for and what has been accomplished.”

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

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

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