I've known Kevin Crass since we were college students decades ago at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. Crass played basketball for the Tigers (memorably coming off the bench to stun the University of Central Arkansas with a last-second shot), and I broadcast the games on the radio.
Crass, who grew up in Pine Bluff, is an attorney with Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Little Rock. He's also the current chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Though Crass wasn't raised in the capital city, Little Rock doesn't have a more civic-minded resident. He has been a major supporter of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock through the years. As chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, he also led the fight to keep alive the long tradition of University of Arkansas Razorback football games being played in the state's largest city.
I'm having breakfast at the Capital Hotel with Crass and Jay Chesshir, the chamber's president and chief executive officer, so they can update me on economic development activities. At a time when two-thirds of the counties in Arkansas are losing population, Arkansans can't count on northwest Arkansas' booming economy to carry the entire state. The Little Rock metropolitan area must also be strong.
I've pointed to the highly successful regional approach taken by business and civic leaders in northwest Arkansas. Crass and Chesshir want to make clear that a similar regional strategy is used in central Arkansas.
"People are always saying that we need to be like northwest Arkansas and take a regional approach," Crass says. "Well, we're doing that. And we think our model is working pretty well."
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has almost 2,000 dues-paying members. Some people have questioned the support given the organization by the city of Little Rock, but Crass says public-private partnerships are essential when it comes to economic development. There must be a single clearinghouse to serve businesses that are looking to locate in an area.
"Frankly, there's nothing more competitive than economic development," Crass says. "The chamber sometimes becomes the whipping boy in political campaigns. We recognize that as a fact of life. But no one has more on the line when it comes to the success of this region than those who have invested heavily in businesses here."
Chesshir walks me through the history of what's known as the Metro Little Rock Alliance. In the 1990s, Joe Ford, who was chairing telecommunications giant Alltel, and construction magnate Bill Clark began pushing for a regional perspective.
"Joe was traveling to cities across the country and seeing that people were beginning to take a regional approach to solving problems," Chesshir says. "He began asking why we weren't doing that here. It took some time, but we finally got 11 counties to come together to form the alliance."
At the time, Chesshir was heading the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. Clark County later joined the group for a total of 12 counties.
Last year, the Metro Little Rock Alliance, which is housed at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, hosted four of the nation's leading site-selection consultants for what's known as a familiarization tour. The consultants stayed in Little Rock but spent their days touring industrial parks, colleges and other entities across the 12-county region. They were impressed with the facilities in and around the Little Rock Technology Park, the Port of Little Rock and Clinton National Airport.
An economic development analysis was done in 2004 to identify the region's strengths and weaknesses. The next step was to raise $300,000 for marketing the member counties. Chesshir moved to Little Rock in February 2005.
"When something good happens, we don't really care who gets credit for it," Crass says. "If the city of Little Rock wants credit for it, that's fine. We have to get rid of this petty us-vs.-them mentality if we're going to achieve our potential."
With record low unemployment rates, Chesshir says the top issue for the group right now is workforce development. Businesses wanting to expand can't find enough qualified workers. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has brought what's known as the Ford Next Generation Learning Initiative to Arkansas and entered into partnerships with the Little Rock School District, the North Little Rock School District, the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District and the Pulaski County Special School District.
Those involved in the effort spent the spring developing trust among educators in the four districts. In April, a Ford team held a two-day session with district leaders to determine how and where the four districts could work together. During the summer, professional development projects for educators took place. That set the stage for implementation of the program in selected schools this fall.
Chesshir also touts the success of the Leadership Greater Little Rock program, which has been training emerging leaders for more than 30 years.
Crass, meanwhile, points toward the port and the airport.
"Look at all of the activity at the Port of Little Rock these days," he says. "Also look at what has taken place at and around the airport through the years. I can tell you that there hasn't been a major economic development success story in this community in recent years that the chamber hasn't been involved with. I would hate to see our momentum halted just because certain people are trying to score political points."
In April, CZ-USA, the U.S.-based affiliate of a Czech firearms manufacturer, announced plans to locate its North American headquarters at the Port of Little Rock and build a production facility on a 73-acre site. The company plans to create 565 jobs during the next six years. The site-selection process took eight months and included four visits by company officials to Little Rock. There were real estate and incentive negotiations, workforce development presentations and tours of quality-of-life amenities in the area. The chamber has created a website so people can apply online.
Later in the year, Priority 1, a Little Rock-based company offering third-party logistic services, announced that it will hire at least 50 new corporate employees as a result of continued growth.
Crass and Chesshir also point to the Venture Center's financial technology accelerator programs, which strengthen Little Rock's position as one of the fintech capitals of the country. The Venture Center is headquartered at the Little Rock Technology Park. Its accelerator programs are designed to speed up the growth of early-stage companies. The hope is that some of those companies will flourish and decide to stay in Arkansas.
Chesshir lists areas of focus for the chamber as advanced manufacturing, corporate operations, distribution and logistics facilities, energy technologies, financial services and technologies, health care and start-up companies.
A key going forward will be obtaining proper funding for the city's two research-based institutions, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and UALR. UAMS and UALR have been underfunded by the Arkansas Legislature for years, and the UA Board of Trustees has been exceedingly Fayetteville-centric. If Crass and Chesshir need additional challenges, changing those dynamics would be a good place to start.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 09/08/2019