Community-minded lawyer leads Arkadelphia economic development

Jillian McGehee/Contributing Writer Published March 20, 2017 at 11:30 a.m.
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Matt Johnson/Contributing Photographer

Eric Hughes, attorney and entrepreneur, is vested in the economic development of Arkadelphia and surrounding areas, as evidenced by his continued commitment to and leadership on the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance Board.

Arkadelphia — Lawyering, civic engagement, farming — somehow Eric Hughes finds time for all of those things and more. With a deep-seeded commitment to community, Hughes, chairman of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance Board of Directors, has a vested interest in seeing Clark County succeed. And he does so with a light heart.

“Some days are better than others,” he said with a smile when asked how he balances his many duties, which include being a husband and father. The parenthood tasks have slowed a bit, with two grown children no longer living in the home.

Hughes and his wife, Erica Hughes, are partners at Hughes & Hughes Law Firm in Arkadelphia. They also own Capstone Pioneer Settlement Services, a real estate title insurance company.

This year marks Eric Hughes’ fourth term as chairman of the Arkadelphia Economic Development Alliance Board.

“We become so invested in projects that it’s difficult to change leadership in the middle,” Hughes said. “Continuity is important.”

The most important project happening now, Hughes said, is the potential for Chinese company Shandong Sun Paper to locate a biorefinery in Clark County.

“We are working constantly on all of the variables that must be solved to bring the project to fruition, including building a railroad, a process water and wastewater system, landfill, electrical-grid connection, workforce development, traffic flow and a thousand other things,” he said. “I have no doubt that we will solve all of those variables. It is a really exciting time in Clark County.”

One of Hughes’ goals is to secure the area’s “robust” economic-development organization’s long-term future.

“In 2014, the voters approved a seven-year renewal of the economic-development tax by nearly 70 percent,” he said. “I hope that by the time the tax is slated to expire, we will have been so successful at economic development that there will be no question about the continuance of the tax and the economic-development organizations.”

Stephen Bell, president and CEO of the alliance, said Hughes was instrumental in the renewal of the half-cent sales tax.

“He then formed a search committee to hire a new CEO who would be responsible for spurring economic development in Clark County. The position had been vacant for a year.”

Bell filled the position in August 2014.

“Since that time, almost every industry in Clark County has added jobs, and the unemployment rate has dropped substantially,” Bell said. “In April 2016, Shandong Sun

Paper announced it was building a $1.2 billion pulp mill in Clark County. Hughes continues to work closely with the staff of the alliance to ensure the growth continues.”

Hughes is quick to give credit to the community-minded before him.

“Clark County has always been fortunate to have people who devoted their time and energy to economic development, going back at least to the ’50s, when they put together a deal in just three weeks to locate the Reynolds Metals plant here,” he said.

“At various times, leaders like D.W. McMillan, Otis Turner, Ed McCorkle, Flave Carpenter, Brown Hardman, Pete Rudolph, Austin Capps and, more recently,

Lewis Shepherd, Bill Wright and Percy Malone and many others have stepped forward to work for the benefit of the county,” Hughes said.

“Each generation has to find the people who are willing to invest their time and energy in economic development because it does not just happen,” he said. “When I became chair of the alliance three years ago, I felt it was time for my generation to take a more active role and not just continue to lean on the generation before.”

When Eric Hughes became chairman of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance and Area Chamber of Commerce, the organization was in a transition period.

In 2014, he led a group of volunteers to renew the half-cent county economic-development sales tax. The tax was renewed by an overwhelming margin in March by Clark County voters.

Hughes grew up in Gurdon, a smaller town south of Arkadelphia — “the best possible place to grow up,” he said.

He graduated from law school a semester early and moved to Arkadelphia to practice law. That was 22 years ago, and he’s never regretted the move, he said.

The Hugheses were in the same law-school class at the University of Arkansas but were in different sections their first year, Eric Hughes said. They didn’t formally meet until they were both at an Arkansas Bar Association meeting during a break at lunch with mutual friends.

“Lucky for me, we hit it off, and I was able to convince her to move to Arkadelphia,” he said. Erica was living in Kansas City at the time.

The Hugheses live near a property where he once dreamed about living. Home from spring break his freshman year of college, he worked on repairing a fence around some property that his high school principal, Bob Thompson, was leasing for his cattle.

“I fell in love with the property and always wanted to live on it,” Hughes said. “Well, years later, Erica and I were fortunate to buy a place to build a house that bordered that property. Later, the Nature Conservancy acquired a lot of the property, and it is now Prairie Ridge at Terre Noire, some of the last remaining Black Land Prairie in the state. However, the part that bordered where our house is came up for sale, and we bought it.”

Impressed by Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hughes decided to start his own farm-to-table operation on his property. Pollan wrote about a Virginian farmer who is raising food for local consumption on a relatively small amount of land, Hughes said, noting that he now raises pastured and forested pork.

“We chose to start with pigs because they don’t require as much investment in infrastructure as, say, cattle, and we wanted the pigs to help us clear out some thickets. And that is why we chose Tamworths, an old heritage breed that are known as good foragers.”

The local farm-to-table movement provides good potential for economic development as well, Hughes added.

“Wouldn’t it be great if every community in Arkansas supported 15 to 20 families who were producing farm-to-table food for local consumption? Why not keep the dollars in the community, rather than buying beef from Argentina and lettuce from California?”

Hughes said he expects to have about 100 pigs this year.

“So Erica really hopes I become a better salesman,” he said smiling.

Hughes also serves on the Economic Development Corporation of Clark County and the Metro Little Rock Alliance, of which the Arkadelphia alliance is a member. The EDCCC contracts with the Arkadelphia alliance, the countywide organization that does the day-to-day work of economic development.

“The alliance has a really good staff, led by Stephen Bell and including Shelley Loe,

Tiffany McNeal and Ashlee Vaughn,” Hughes said. “They work every day to put together economic-development projects and then go to the EDCCC to seek funding for the projects.”

When Hughes catches a spare moment to himself, he will likely be reading—a history book, to be exact.

“For the past several years, I have been concentrating on medieval history,” Hughes said. “However, at Christmas I decided to read the Harry Potter books, which I just finished. I’m still a Muggle, though.”