The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce held its 155th annual meeting Thursday and outlined economic growth during a year weighed down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ron Dedman, president of AT&T's Arkansas operations and 2020 chairman of the chamber, noted the challenges presented by covid-19 but said the region nevertheless experienced the "best economic development year in recent history."
Economic development efforts led to more than 2,000 jobs and $250 million in investments, Dedman said.
The chamber chairman also noted the accelerated effort this year to forge ahead with a partnership involving the four major school districts in Pulaski County.
The Academies of Central Arkansas initiative coordinates workforce training programs that use the Ford Next Generation Learning model, which advocates a community-driven approach to workforce training and education in public schools. The program encourages collaboration between educators and industry leaders.
Chamber officials, area business leaders and educators have led the initiative to give "all students a relevant education that prepares them to be both college- and career-ready upon graduation," Dedman said.
The Little Rock port landed many of the new business expansions this year, including an $11 million investment to support the distribution center that Amazon is building, along with the $20 million expansion of Revolution Plastics' manufacturing plant in the port's industrial sector.
Amazon announced in the summer that it would build an 826,000-square-foot facility on 80 acres at the port. The operation will be Amazon's first fulfillment center in Arkansas and plans to employ more than 1,000 workers when it opens next year.
Other significant investments in the area include a $10 million investment by SCA Pharma to expand production facilities at Clinton National Airport, which also entered into a marketing agreement to leverage the Little Rock chamber to promote economic development efforts.
Chamber officials visited more than 500 businesses and continued recruiting efforts. The chamber will "enter the new year with the wind at their backs and a very full pipeline," Dedman said.
"The challenges of 2020 have required of us great leadership and tremendous resolve, which can serve as a foundation for more progress and a better Little Rock," he added.
Looking forward, incoming Chairman John Burgess, who is president of Mainstream Technologies, said the business organization will work to continue the momentum.
With its disruptions and restrictions, 2020 "has tested our resolve as a business community," Burgess said. "2021 will reveal the spirit and character of Little Rock as we work to put the pandemic behind us while innovating and collaborating on new ways of doing business."
Thursday's meeting was modified for the pandemic, allowing for a live audience of 36 business leaders with social distancing and attracted strong virtual attendance – with 45 watch parties around the city held in groups of 10. Individual ticketholders also joined the meeting, and chamber officials estimated about 600 people tuned in for the gathering.