Chamber to focus this year on education

By Wayne Bryan Published March 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Lewis Shepherd, right, vice president for student and external affairs at Henderson State University, receives the President’s Award as Citizen of the Year from Eric Hughes, 2013 president of the Arkadelphia Chamber of Commerce, during the chamber’s annual meeting on March 6. Shepherd is co-chairman of the Clark County Strategic Plan Committee.

ARKADELPHIA — The business community, united in the Arkadelphia Area Chamber of Commerce, will focus on supporting and promoting education in Clark County during 2014.

The theme for the year ahead was announced at the chamber’s annual banquet, held March 6 at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

The chamber will support some of the education actions suggested in the Clark County Strategic Plan for economic and community development that was passed in 2007.

“We will be working closely with the three school superintendents in the county, the Dawson Educational Cooperative and volunteers in the educational subcommittee addressing the plan,” said Shelley Loe, executive vice president of the chamber and the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance. “First and foremost, we want to educate local residents about the problems going on in our public schools that are preparing our students for jobs after graduation or to go on to two-year or four-year higher-education programs in the region.”

Loe also said the chamber will help promote the opportunities found at the two universities based in the city, Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist.

“Both schools have so much to offer, and we want our local students and their parents to realize the exceptional education available right here at home,” she said.

Loe said the Arkadelphia Promise scholarships now available for Arkadelphia Public School students has increased the number of students who are attending the two local institutions of higher learning, but she said the community still loses many young people who leave to attend colleges or universities outside the region.

During the event, Eric Hughes, 2013 chamber president, presented the annual President’s Award: Citizen of the Year to Lewis Shepherd, vice president for student and external affairs at Henderson State. Shepherd is active in many community and economic-development projects in the area, including the county’s strategic plan.

Shepherd said he was humbled by the award.

“I feel that I stand on the shoulders of many people who have come before, including the Clark County Industrial Council and those who said we needed a strategic plan,” he said, “and now stand shoulder to shoulder with the residents who are dedicated to leaving Clark County better than they found it.”

Rex Nelson, president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities, an association of the state’s 11 private institutions of higher learning, carried on the theme of the night, saying his hometown of Arkadelphia needs to take a new approach to economic development.

“The 1950s and 1960s mode of economic development is dead in the South,” said Nelson, who is an Arkansas native and an OBU graduate. “We used to court manufacturers, reminding them we had no unions and offered good, hard-working people and low wages.”

He said the steady search for low wages took manufacturing jobs out of the South and the United States, and sent them first to Latin America and then Asia.

“Drive though the small towns of the South and see the old, empty factories where the community leaders are still waiting for Acme Widget to come in and employ everyone in town,” he said. “I want to scream to them about community development.”

Nelson said industry now looks for good public schools, quality hospitals and good roads, and a vital main street when they look for places to invest in new businesses or to expand existing industries. He said Arkadelphia has always had an advantage over other locations because of the two universities in town.

“We have that niche as a small Southern college town that attracts students,” Nelson said. “We should help the schools grow their enrollment. Then we will see retirees, artists, writers and others move into the area in search of a center of culture.”

Nelson talked of the tremendous job Arkadelphia residents and businesses have done in rebuilding the city after a 1997 tornado destroyed much of the city’s business district.

Nelson was an aide to Gov. Mike Huckabee when the tornado struck, and he toured the damage in the community, along with the governor and then-President Bill Clinton.

“You have done a wonderful job,” Nelson said, “yet the job is not over.”

He called on county residents to vote to extend the local 1.5 percent sales tax that funds economic development incentives and projects.

After the banquet, Loe said local businesses and industries have said they would like to address the work ethics of young employees.

“I have talked with the Small Business and Technology Development Center at Henderson State University,” she said. “We are looking at training programs addressing work ethics that would be offered at local businesses and offered in the schools. The program would tell students and other young people how to dress and ask to get a job, and to move up the ladder once they are employed.”

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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