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Six months after closing the North Little Rock Economic Development Corp. office and moving its only employee to work under Mayor Joe Smith, new legislation proposes paying $75,000 to use the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce for economic development services.

The resolution will go before the North Little Rock City Council at its meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The council meeting is moved from today because city offices will be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas.

The legislation proposes entering an agreement with the chamber that states that the chamber, acting as a consultant, "collaborate with City leaders and City staff in implementing the City's marketing and engagement plan to retain existing business, to foster expansion of existing businesses, and to achieve the City's economic development goals."

Todd Larson, who had been executive director for the closed, nonprofit Economic Development Corp., has retained a rented office at the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, 100 Main St., since becoming a city employee as part of the mayor's staff July 1. His duties were to expand to include grant writing and assisting with city projects at an annual salary of $83,000.

The legislation states that the costs for the chamber's economic development services are estimated to be $75,000. The money is included within the city Electric Department's 2019 budget as part of a $275,000 line item for the "North Little Rock Economic Development Corp." The budget figure is $75,000 higher than what was in the 2018 budget.

Because of the change, the Economic Development Corp. is to dissolve by Dec. 31, city Finance Director Karen Scott said last week. It didn't go away entirely when Larson went from independent contractor to city employee because there remained "some leases and other items that needed to be continued until the end of the year," Scott said. Any leftover funds are to be transferred to the city once it is dissolved.

Larson's move came after state voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that restored a means for municipalities to pay a chamber of commerce or private promoters for economic development services. The statewide vote was in response to a 2015 Pulaski County judge's ruling that Little Rock and North Little Rock couldn't legally pay for such services. The ruling determined that the services provided in exchange for such payments couldn't be proven.

The new law took effect Aug. 1, 2017. It requires city council approval for all contracts for economic development services or economic development projects.

In shifting Larson's work to be under the mayor's office last summer, both Smith and Larson said at the time that, because of the new state law requirements regarding council approval, it would be more efficient for city economic development services to be part of city government rather than involve an outside party.

Smith said last week that this new arrangement with the chamber doesn't change the process or the relationship the city already had with the chamber or with chamber President John Owens.

"I didn't want anything to change," Smith said. "Whatever Todd and [Chief of Staff] Danny Bradley and me and John Owens were doing, I wanted it to stay the same. It doesn't change how we do it or who does what, except for the fact that Todd is working directly for me.

"We realized how important job retention is," Smith said. "John has partnered with us doing job retention. He contacts existing businesses, asks them what problems they have. Todd has concentrated more on new jobs."

The agreement outlines a "business retention and expansion program," a "workforce education and development program," and that the chamber provide up to 10 hours monthly of website administration support. The chamber is also to provide a private office and work station, unlimited use of conference and board rooms and office machines, Internet service and a receptionist.

Though the agreement stipulates that office space be provided for "two Economic Development employees," Smith said that Larson is still the only such employee.

Metro on 12/24/2018

Print Headline: North Little Rock shifting effort to grow its economy

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